Generations of Positive Exposure: The W.H. Bass Photo Co.'s Gerry and Kathy Abel

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Writer / Kara Reibel

Celebrating over 118 years in business, the W.H. Bass Photo Company still resides in the same building since inception in 1897 along South New Jersey Street. The Bass Photo Building is now a historic landmark with its owners solidly rooted to the past but working towards the future.

William H. Bass was a local teacher at Shortridge High School who took up photography in 1887. By 1899, the company was operating as Bass and Woodworth. Woodworth sold his interest to Bass in 1904, officially creating the W.H. Bass Photo Company. Theodore (Ted) Abel became a Board member by 1936, and today his grandson, Gerry Abel, along with his wife, Kathy, run the company.

“My grandfather, Ted Abel, hung around Mr. Bass in the early 1900s as a kid. He was eventually given a broom and worked his way up,” says Gerry, third generation Bass Photo Company owner. “Developer is in the blood. I grew up with a dark room at home and spent weekends at the shop.”

Gerry watched his father, grandfather and the technicians work, and he played hide and seek, enjoying the revolving doors on the dark room. “It’s an honor to be a third generation photographer with The Bass Photo Company,” shares Gerry. “But what makes my experience so rewarding is working alongside my wife, Kathy.”

Perhaps Bass Photo is best known for its massive collection of historical photos taken of Indianapolis since 1899. “The photos of the street scenes were actually taken using extra sheets of film after a job,” shares Kathy. She explains, “The photographer would ride the trolley car along Virginia into downtown and snap shots of buildings and scenes of people in the streets with the extra photo paper leftover from their job.”

These “extras” have served as the photographic history of Indianapolis, creating the notoriety that is associated with The Bass Photo Company. “We feel that these vintage photos are an integral part of recording the history of Indianapolis from 1897,” shares Kathy.

In 1987, the Indiana Historical Society (IHS) purchased the vast collection of over 200,000 negatives. These negatives are now preserved and cataloged at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick History Center, creating a massive archive accessible online or by request in the IHS library.

Susan Sutton, Director of Digitization at the IHS located at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick History Center, pieced together these beloved negatives in the book “Indianapolis: The Bass Photo Company Collection by Indiana Historical Society Press,” 2008.

“I was really excited to write the book about this fantastic body of work. Like so many other people, I love these photographs,” shares Sutton. “Researching the company itself gave me an even greater appreciation of the images. Everything I found pointed to people who consciously recorded the history of the city.

“From William H. Bass instructing photographers to shoot interesting scenes with unused negatives when returning from assignments to Ted Abel sending people out to photograph endangered buildings, this company has a long history of SERVING Indianapolis – not just doing business. Their photographers were talented, and they left a beautiful record of a city as it grew and changed through the 20th century.”

Given the incredible history of The Bass Photo Company, what will the future hold? “Our present and future is strong,” shares Gerry. “We are continuing on.”

With clients like Eli Lilly who have used the talents of The Bass Photo Company for over 118 years, it’s hard to not maintain a successful working relationship with that type of track record. “Mr. Lilly used to come over to look at the historic negatives with my grandfather,” says Gerry. “And what’s more, Lilly moved closer to us out of convenience.”

The Abels are grateful for all of their clients. “We are so blessed by our wonderful customers,” says Kathy. “Our business continues to grow and move forward.”

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