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Underwood and Underwood

Time Period: 
1888-1930s
Location: 
Multiple Branch Offices
Biography: 

Founded in 1882 in Ottowa, Kansas, by Bert Elias Underwood (1862-1943) and his brother Elmer Underwood (1860-1947), their studio moved to Baltimore in 1888, then New York before the turn of the 20th century. It built a national, then international business by popularizing the stereograph, the duple image photograph. The idea for double image cameras and viewers was promoted by poet and jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes. The Underwood brothers read his description in a copy of the Atlantic Monthly and made it a reality, sparking a national craze for stereograph pictures and viewers. To supply imagery for this client base they traveled extensively and built branch offices.

During the 1890s they determined that pictures of events in the news would bolster their sales, and they began American photojournalism, inducing the Illustrated London Times to publish a stereographic view of the Greco-Turkish War in 1897. At the turn of the century the firm sold 300,000 stereoscopes annually and printed 25,000 steroegraphic prints a day. It was diversified pictorial imagery that produced paintings and lithographs as well as stereographs. They would purchase pictures from free lancers, but came after 1910 to rely increasingly on its own staff. In 1921 they sold the stereographic business to their chief rival, Keystone Views, and concentrated on news, portraiture, and commercial photography. They supplied all the photographs used in early issues of Time Magazine.

The business office was managed by Charles N. Thomas, who oversaw a staff of photographers in several cities. No employee was given individual credit, though certain camera artists would earn reputations for the work in various fields: Thomas Sand for sports photography, George Kadel for photojournalism and advertising, and James Elliott for commercial photography. Other important photographers include Alfred Wegener, who did fashion and food work for the New York Times, John Funk, Harry Gordon, and George J. Schmidt. Its theatrical work was done by several lensmen, in the earliest days by Bert Underwood whose taste ran to portraiture--he produced one of the finest images of the playwright Ibsen.

From 1910 to 1919 Jack Freulich, chief portraitist of the New York office, built the studio into a force in entertainment publicity. Universal Pictures contracted with Underwood and Underwood to produce its stills and publicity in 1918. When Universal moved to the West Coast in 1920, it hired Freulich away from the New York branch office to serve as head of its still photography division.

The Underwood brothers retired in 1925, leaving Bert's son C. Thomas Underwood in charge. In 1931 Underwood and Underwood was reorganized into four separate divisions. It found itself increasingly on the margins in entertainment photography, but remained a vital force in the fields of advertising and photojournalism. David S. Shields/ALS

Specialty: 

Underwood and Underwood was a diversified agency that came to power popularizing the steroegraph and by doing pioneering work in photojournalism. In the 1910s the studio expanded its coverage of the world of entertainment with an emphasis on celebrity portraiture, and made an early specialty of candid shots of stage stars, usually seen at home.