The Georg family, photographers

Studio portrait of a dancer; undated, but the partnership of Kessberger & Georg lasted only from 1897 to 1902. (Sangamon Valley Collection)

The Georg photo dynasty documented Springfield’s history for a century. But much of that history went up in flames when a fire destroyed the Herbert Georg Studio in 1980.

The three best-known family members were Victor Emmanuel Georg (1858-1911) and his sons Victor Emil (1884-1961) and Herbert (1893-1964). Sister Irma Georg Pree’s (1886-1964) forte was women’s and children’s photography. Another son, Raymond (1900-58), managed the family photo businesses, but his artistic specialty was oil and charcoal portraiture.

Victor Emmanuel Georg grew up in Milwaukee and worked in Chicago and Evanston before coming to Springfield in 1897 at the suggestion of Gov. John Peter Altgeld (Georg was Altgeld’s official photographer). Georg and partner August Kessberger (1862-1940) built a photo studio – with no reliable indoor lighting at the time, it had to include skylights – in the Pierik Building on the east side of today’s Old Capitol Plaza.

Victor Emmanuel Georg, 1911 (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

The elder Georg is said to have been the first local photographer to go to customers’ homes to take their photographs. He was a charter member of the Photographers Association of America and the main organizer of both the Photographers’ Association of Illinois and the Springfield chapter of the Order of Elks.

One history of American photography refers to Victor Emmanuel Georg as “an entrepreneur and experimentalist who mastered all aspects of the photographic process. He had a taste for panorama cameras and outside event photography as well as the studio portraiture that was the bread and butter of the professional photographer.”

The Georg/Kessberger partnership broke up in 1902. Victor Emil, Herbert and Raymond took over the Victor Georg Studio when their father died a decade later. The younger Victor, however, didn’t stay in Springfield long. In 1914, he moved to Chicago, where he built a reputation for his portraits of opera stars.

That, in turn, gave him the connections to move again to New York City, where he set up a studio on West 57th Street. There, Georg became the favorite photographer of what was known as “the 400,” the upper crust of the New York social scene. In 1916 and 1917, Vanity Fair magazine published a series of full-page portraits Victor made of those socialites.

Hedda Hopper, actress and gossip columnist, photographed by Victor Emil Georg, undated (Broadway Images)

He began to work with movie studios in 1918, doing publicity photos and designing titles for artists including director D.W. Griffiths. He also became the house photographer for the Ziegfeld Follies. Among the actors and actresses Georg photographed were Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Leslie Howard, Rudolph Valentino, and Lionel and Ethel Barrymore. Georg followed up that part of his career by, in 1925, becoming the photo editor of the New York Times.

Georg’s portraits were described as being like paintings, with beautiful lighting and composition. The poet Carl Sandburg, who was notoriously camera-shy, once said the only photo of himself he ever liked was taken by Victor Emil Georg.

Georg once explained his approach in a newspaper interview. Operating the camera was only the last step, he said.

I would leave my subject alone in the studio for a few minutes, to let them get accustomed to their surroundings. Then I would talk with them, let them forget that they’ve come just to have pictures made. During this conversation I would be studying them, deciding for myself the type of a portrait I will make of them. And I would be considering lighting. Much can be done with lights; a face can be remodeled with them, in fact. A receding chin can be built up if a face is properly lighted. A nose that is not well modeled can be changed. A stout woman can be made thin.

If he had done his preparations correctly, the portrait would be virtually complete before he pressed the shutter, Georg said.

Victor Emil Georg, 1915 (SJ-R)

Late in life, Victor Emil Georg had what seems to have been a mental crisis. He gave up photography and became a follower of numerology, a pseudoscience that claimed a person’s success can be determined by such things as the numbers in their birth date and how many letters they have in their name. Following the precepts of numerology, Georg started calling himself “Ed Hall” instead of Victor Georg.

As Ed Hall, he set up a numerology salon in a Chicago hotel. He also somehow became a farm adviser to Gov. Dwight Green in the early 1940s – even though, as a Chicago Tribune columnist once wrote, “his specialty is certainly not agriculture except as it concerns the number of cows in a given pasture.”

Victor Emil Georg is buried, under his birth name, in the family plot at Oak Ridge Cemetery.

Herbert Georg remained in Springfield, but left the Victor Georg Studio in 1923 to establish his own business. The Herbert Georg Studio competed with the Victor Georg Studio (and an offshoot/successor, the Georg & Robie Studio) into the 1930s. Victor Emil kept his ties to the original studio, coming to town periodically to advertise the availability of sittings with “Victor Georg, New York photographer.”

Like his brother, Herbert Georg did show-business work. He helped develop a 35-millimeter sound system for films and filmed events around Illinois for Pathe News, which provided newsreels for movie theaters.

Herbert Georg, 1960s (SJ-R)

Herbert also shot stills for a number of feature movies. He was a circus buff, a mainstay of Springfield’s Henry Kyes Tent of the Circus Fans Association of America. The highlight of Herbert Georg’s career in movie photography took place in 1952, when he served as still photographer for the Cecil B. DeMille movie extravaganza, “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Raymond Georg managed the Victor Georg Studio after Herbert started his own operation. For a time starting in the late 1920s, the Victor Georg business shared storefront space at 406 S. Fifth St. with a bookstore operated by Lora Robie, and they sometimes advertised as Georg & Robie. The partnership, if that’s what it was, broke up about 1931; by 1935, Raymond Georg was working in his brother’s business, the Herbert Georg Studio. That studio, which originally opened at 514½ E. Capitol Ave., had moved in 1927 to 224½ S. Fifth St.

The Herbert Georg Studio outlasted Herbert himself by about 35 years. Kenneth Carroll (1921-99) and Don Ewing (1928-89) took over the studio after Herbert died in 1964. On Feb. 19, 1980, however, an electrical fire destroyed the Georg Studio and a half-dozen other businesses on the northeast corner of Fifth and Monroe streets.

Kenneth Carroll, left, and Don Ewing in front of the burned-out remains of the Herbert Georg Studio, 1980 (SJ-R)

The studio lost housands of photo negatives, including collections about Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg and 35-mm motion picture film of Charles Lindbergh, in the fire. Worse, perhaps, was the loss of irreplaceable memories – parades, street scenes, weddings, family portraits and many more photos of Springfield life – dating back decades. The lost images were valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Ewing talked to State Journal-Register reporter Andy Lindstrom shortly after the fire.

A fellow from New York was here some time ago, interested in the theater. We showed him this box full of old-time Broadway and silent film stars. He knew them all – Billie Burke, Myrna Loy, Lionel Barrymore.

He was just flabbergasted at what we had. “You should send these to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City,” he said.

But it was just one of those things we never got around to. It would have taken us two years to catalog all those negatives.

And now they’re gone.

Carroll and Ewing moved the studio to the 300 block of West Carpenter Street after the fire. The Herbert Georg Studio disappears from Springfield city directories after 1999.

Fire damage

Other businesses destroyed by the 1980 fire were: Tom & Sally’s Bible & Book Store, 220-22 S. Fifth St.; Jenny’s Cards & Gifts, 224-26 S. Fifth St.; Beagles Lettering Service, 226½ S. Fifth St.; and Brown Engineers, 222½ S. Fifth St.

More information

A small selection of photos by the Georgs can be seen at the website of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. Included is an arresting photograph of 17 women of the Ku Klux Klan; it isn’t clear if the women were from the Springfield area.

The library is the repository of some 12,000 glass plate negatives bequeathed to it in 1967 by collector King Hostick.

Note: This entry is an adaptation and significant expansion of a script written for “Echoes of Yesteryear: A Walk Through Oak Ridge Cemetery” in October 2023. Pat Foster portrayed Herbert Georg. The annual cemetery walk is sponsored by the Sangamon County Historical Society.    

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2 Responses to The Georg family, photographers

  1. Bob says:

    Truly it’s a tragedy about the fire and the the lost negatives, prints and plates. It is the case with so many historical collections and items of interest. Alas, suddenly, gone forever. I am reminded of a guy I worked with at Horace Mann back in the 90s. He said he came home one day, circa 1960, and his mother had emptied his bottom dresser drawer and consigned his baseball card collection to the trash man. This was in the early 90s when the price of that stuff was still hot, hot, hot. He was pretty sanguine about it but he had a bit of a dreamy look in his eye as he told me the story. ” She said I needed more room for my socks and underwear “

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