Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Guide to the Ira L. Hill Portrait Photonegatives

Collection ID:
Martin, Ray
Hill, Ira L. (Ira Lawrence), 1877-1947
bulk 1925-1931
Physical Description:
200 Cubic feet
300 wooden drawers; 23,metal file drawers

Scope and Contents
Scope and Contents
Approximately 86,000 photographic negatives (Series 1) and twenty-three drawers of file cards (Series 2) comprise the collection. Most of the pictures are studio portraits.
Series 1: Photonegatives
The majority of the negatives are glass plates, 5 x 7 inches. Approximately 10% of the total number of images are on film, also 5 x 7 inches, and all the film material which has been inspected thus far is on safety base: rapid deterioration of some of the film indicates that it is unstable cellulose acetate or diacetate. Nearly all of the negatives are portraits. Many of the female subjects ear furs or expensive gowns and dresses, and most of the men seem well-dressed. The majority of the portraits inspected have been heavily retouched with pencil, as apparently was Hill's custom, and the standard procedure followed by most commercial portrait studios. There are some large portraits, especially wedding photographs, which are in extremely poor condition due to the acetate deformation and deterioration.
Several hundred 8"x 10" glass negatives are not studio portraits. Many are informal outdoor portraits, landscapes and scenic views. Some seem to depict vacation outings and camping trips.
These photographs (approximately 86,000, according to the inventory conducted in the early 1980s) are currently stored off-site (building 18, Silver Hill Facility), and are not yet accessible due to the fact that parts of the collection are contaminated with asbestos insulation fibers; after preliminary cleaning, asbestos levels remaining were still considered hazardous. The collection must be included within the over-all Silver Hill asbestos abatement program. However, a small representative sample of glass and film negatives (1 box) has been cleaned and shelved in the Archives Center.
Series 2: Card Files
The collection is accompanied by twenty-three drawers of cards which form a partial working catalog. These cards are business records, recording the names of subjects and dates of sittings, along with prices charged, and the photographer or studio's catalog number. These numbers are on the negative jackets and match the card numbers. The cataloguing system incorporates at least in part a chronological arrangement which parallels the numerical sequence.
Celebrity subjects in the collection include Eleanor Roosevelt, Hedda Hopper, Fred Astaire, Ziegfield girls such as Billie Burke, and other public and entertainment figures. However, the celebrity portraits represent only a small percentage of the photographs. Indeed, an extensive list of prominent subjects supposedly to be found in the collection was supplied by Ray Martin before the acquisition, but most of these names have not appeared in either the card files or the collection itself, to the limited extent that the material could be inspected during inventory. Of course, there are chronological gaps in the cards.

The collection is divided into two series.
Series 1: Photonegatives
Series 2: Card Files
Card files arranged alphabetically by client name; each file devoted to a single year, half-year, or, in one instance, consecutive series of years. Photonegatives arranged numerically within drawers.

Biographical / Historical
Biographical / Historical
Ira Lawrence Hill opened a photographic studio in New York City about 1905, and died in 1938 or 1939. His birthdate has not yet been located. Hill was considered the "Cecil Beaton of his time" in New York, for he photographed the wealthy and socially prominent in his studio, but also received requests from all over the country to document society events "on location". He photographed many film and theatrical celebrities, portraits with helping to launch her career. She wrote: "Aside from his own enthusiasm, the above [referring to the Hill photograph] was the only evidence which C. B. Cochran submitted to Sir Gerald du Maurier when suggesting I be imported for a role in 'The Dancers' in London. Since my first transatlantic flight marked the turning point in my career, my personal thanks go to photographer Ira Hill who posed and reproduced me. I've faced many a camera since, both still and moving, but not one of their images served me so well as Ira's. Photographers can flatter you and they can foul you up. When submitting to news cameramen I often came out looking like the second witch in 'Macbeth.'"
Ray Martin, donor of the collection to the Museum, noted that her personally photographed the wedding of Sen. Claiborne Pell while working for Hill. Hill eventually married five debutantes in succession, according to Martin. His work frequently was published in Vanity Fair, Town and Country and other magazines, and he did his best work from 1920 on.
The Hill studio was located at 677 Fifth Avenue, near 53rd Street, according to a letter from 1946 on "Ira L. Hill's Studio" stationary. It is not known whether the studio was always in that location.
Ray Martin worked for Hill from 1936 to 1938. After Hill's death Martin purchased the studio and operated it until about 1960. Photographs in the collection which are dated after 1939 presumably were made by Mr. Martin or under his supervision. The early Hill and Martin photographs were placed in storage for several years after Martin closed the studio, and he subsequently donated them to the Division of Photographic History of the Museum of History and Technology in the 1960s. The Division finally accessioned the collection in 1981 (accession number 1981.0463).
Biographical / Historical
Although some sources give Hill's date of death as 1938, an article in the New York Times, November 21, 1939, describes the arrest of "Society Photographer" Ira L. Hill after a fight at the home of his ex-wife.

David Haberstich
Custodial History
Ray Martin, having purchased the collection with the studio, held it in storage for many years before donating it to the Museum.
Custodial History
Collection transferred to the Archives Center from the Division of Photographic History (now Division of Cultural and Community Life) August 1986.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Collection donated by Ray Martin, 1970.
Processing Information
Collection processed by David Haberstich, undated

Using the Collection
Conditions Governing Use
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning copyright restrictions. Other intellectual property rights may apply. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions.
Conditions Governing Access
The majority of the collection is inaccessible and is stored off-site. Special arrangements must be made to work with it. Contact the Archives Center for information at or 202-633-3270.
Preferred Citation
Ira L. Hill Portrait Photonegatives, 1912-1953, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Related Materials
Materials at Other Organizations
National Portrait Gallery has a portrait of Margaret Sanger by Ira Hill.

Keywords table of terms and types.
Keyword Terms Keyword Types
Actors Occupation Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Portraits -- 1900-1950 Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Actors -- Interviews -- Pennsylvania Occupation Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Photographs -- Black-and-white negatives -- Acetate film -- 1900-1950 Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Retouching -- Pencil Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Celebrities -- 20th century Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
New York (N.Y.) Geographic Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
National Museum of American History (U.S.). Division of Photographic History Corporate Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962 Personal Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid

Archives Center, National Museum of American History
P.O. Box 37012
Suite 1100, MRC 601
Washington, D.C. 20013-7012