The Story of Bill Stettner
THE PASSING OF THE REVISIONS TO THE COPYRIGHT ACT IN THE USA, HAD DISASTROUS CONSEQUENCES FOR BILL STETTNER AND HIS CO-CAMPAIGNERS.
Portrait of Bill Stettner in his shop ‘The Garage Sale’, New York © Peter Adams 1991
BILL STETTNER was a very successful New York advertising photographer, with an amazing inventive mind, and many iconic images under his belt. He was also believed a great injustice was being perpetrated on photographers around the world.
Through the late eighties, Bill and a number of other American photographers fought a battle over the right of a photographer to own the copyright in their own images - the first such action, in what is now accepted as a photographer’s right just about everywhere around the world.
The passing of the revisions to the copyright act had disastrous consequences for Stettner and his co-campaigners.
Many of the committee found it difficult to get meaningful work after the revisions to the copyright act became law (unless they waived their rights) - but Bill, as the main protagonist, was black-balled by the New York advertising industry, and never worked again as a photographer.
He eventually lost everything to his creditors.
'American Flag', © Bill Stettner 1965
Bill’s last career was as a dealer in second hand goods, from a shop called ‘The Garage Sale’ on Columbus Circle (where I made this portrait). Sadly the strain of previous years and progressively deteriorating health destroyed his spirit, and he eventually died a pauper in Mount Sinai hospital.
Our memory of those who have fought battles on our collective behalf are sadly short lived. In many ways, Bill gave his life for what he believed in – a principle that benefited every working photographer today.
We should not forget that.
“As a young man,” said Bill, “the glamour of the world of photography was definitely the job for me! I started work, as a photographer’s assistant for $27.50 week – and all the girls I could wrap and carry!”
“I suppose my most memorable pictures were made in the 60s – the series I did on racial inequality and the Vietnam War.
“Martin Luther King had just been assassinated, as had Kennedy. America was a racial mess. Sure, people were talking about racial integration – as though things had changed. But just below the surface it was as it had always been – all the bigotry and hatred. I suppose my most satisfying image is the double face – but most people never understood it.
I wanted to take a picture of ordinary blue-collar workers – a sort of Avedon close up – using a black man for one half of the face, and a white man for the other – so that the black man looked like the shadow side of the white man’s face.
“These days this would simple with computers – but back in 1963 it all had to be done in the camera. I had a huge casting session that went on for ever, and eventually, shot 36 sheets of 5” x 4” film of the white guy – cross lit from the right. At this stage I hadn’t found a black face that matched and I didn’t for quite a while – in fact the film stayed untouched in the slide holders for two months.
“Most of the art directors who saw this portrait thought it was some weird white guy with a fat lip, and threw the print into the bin! When I explained it to them, they got embarrassed and didn’t want to talk about it. It definitely wasn’t a commercial success!”
Bill used his spare time to experiment with personal photography – images that drew attention to the hatred he saw around him in America. Brought up in a Jewish family, his father was a wedding photographer who had emigrated from Europe – he was well aware of racial persecution and inequality.
Stettner’s collection of social comment photographs was large, but now sadly lost due to a confidence trick played on him when he was dying. I remember a picture of a black hand holding white jelly baby, another of Martin Luther King’s portrait superimposed on a petrol can (a reference to the Birmingham riots) and many others. Who knows where they are now.
But perhaps it is this one, a comment on the explosive and self-destructive nature of the United States, which has best stood the test of time and is as relevant today as it was when photographed in 1968.
In many ways, Bill Stettner gave his life so that you and I can now enjoy the benefits of owning our own copyright. He died in Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
Two days prior to his death, while doped up on Morphine, an unidentified person or persons got Bill to sign away his life’s work – all his negatives, prints and equipment – which disappeared overnight and were never seen again. If anyone knows the whereabouts of Bill Stettner's pictures please contact this website or firstname.lastname@example.org
We need to remember Bill Stettner and his images.
Written by Peter Adams
I'm absolutely so happy that you posted this about Bill. I knew him and had assisted him for a few jobs back in my old assistant days. How cool to see his famous image of the matchsticks! I was just trying to explain this to someone who thought they had a great idea, only to have me tell them it was already done. Then I couldn't find his image on it... thank you for posting this and about a wonderful photographer who painstakingly fought for our rights!
Thanks for this article. I knew Bill and sat with him on the board in the early days of Advertising Photographers of America (APA), with Bill fighting for a standardized estimating/billing form in the industry. For the hard work he did in those early days, there wouldn't be an APA without Bill. I heard his girlfriend at the time of his death got all his stuff. I pretty sure that's accurate. I don't remember her name. I'll ask around and see if anyone remembers her.