Author: Grace Shackman
When studio photography was king
Today, when the slightest family occasion is recorded with simple pocket-size cameras, and major events bring out the camcorder, it's easy to forget that just yesterday major life events were commemorated in the photographer's studio. Births, confirmations, graduations, team membership, army enlistments, marriages--all, if the family could afford it, were recorded for posterity at the local studio.
Studio photographers, masters of the bulky, tripod-mounted cameras and fragile glass negatives of the day, were the unoffiocial portraitists of the city. From 1890 to 1971, Fred Rentschler and his son and successor, Edwin Rentschler, took pictures of mayors, businessmen, service organization officers, and ministers. Their Rentschler Photographers, primarily at 319 East Huron, had almost a monopoly on U-M subjects: they memorialized every U-M president from James Angell on, photographed the leading professors, and took all the major team pictures.
Fred Rentschler was born in Ann Arbor on June 3, 1868, a few years after his parents immigrated from Wurttemberg, Germany. The 1906 Past and Present of Washtenaw County described the family as "prominent in social circles of the city"--connections that no doubt helped Fred get customers.
After a two-year apprenticeship in photography with the firm of Lewis and Gibson, Rentschler established his own studio in 1890 at the corner of Main and Huron, on the second floor of Brown's Drugstore. His darkroom was across the alley, reached through a covered catwalk. He would take a picture in his studio, run across the alley to develop the glass negative before it faded, then return to take the next shot.
In 1904, when the drugstore was about to be demolished to make way for the Glazier Building, Rentschler bought an old house at 319 East Huron, on land now part of City Hall, to use as his studio. To capture as much natural light for sittings as possible, he built a room on the back of the house with a two-story glass wall. Next door Rentschler built a house for his family. He had married Jessie Doane, a schoolteacher from Dexter, in 1898, and the couple had three children.
Fred Rentschler's grandson, Jeff Rentschler, a recent retiree from the Ann Arbor Fire Department, was a small boy when his grandfather died. He heard from those who knew Fred that he was friendly and outgoing, but also that he ran the studio with an iron hand. At his death the Ann Arbor News wrote, "He had a great deal of patience . . . and thus was able to wait for that fleeting twist of the mouth, or that expression of eyes that delighted his heart when he squeezed the bulb to flash the human countenance onto a film."
Edwin Rentschler, born in 1900, was trained from an early age to be his dad's successor. He officially entered the photography business in 1926, after graduating from the U-M with a business degree. (Jeff wonders if his dad resented going right into the business and if that is why he, in turn, wasn't encouraged to take it over.) The same year Edwin Rentschler joined the business, he married Lois Gates, the daughter of Dr. Neil Gates. As his father's health declined, Edwin handled more and more of the business, taking over completely a few years before Fred died in 1940.
Edwin retained the customers and used the same technology as his fa≠ther had. Jeff Rentschler remembers him standing behind the big camera or hurrying to bring out props--chairs, stools of various sizes, tables. Like his father, he was a perfectionist and a careful craftsman, good with details and very patient. Jeff remembers him as a sterner man than his grandfather; but he could also be very charming. Even with children, who can be a real challenge for a photographer, he would talk and wisecrack until they relaxed and he could get good pictures.
Jeff describes his father as a workaholic who perfected the system of photography he had been taught and changed nothing unless absolutely necessary. Long after good-quality 35-mm film cameras appeared--including the Ann Arbor-made Argus--Edwin Rentschler stayed with glass negatives and a large view camera so heavy it could be moved around the room only on casters.
Because the equipment was so heavy, all work was done in the studio, never on-site. Weeks before their weddings, brides would come to the studio to pose in their gowns. Whole crowds would arrive for group pictures. Even the athletic teams came. Jeff remembers it was a tradition for the U-M football team to come at the end of each season and pose for a group picture. Then they would elect the next year's captain and his picture would be taken, too. (Rentschler didn't charge teams for the pictures, but made money selling them to others.)
Edwin Rentschler's studio was a one-man operation; he even made frames himself. The only help he had was a receptionist and a college student who got a room in exchange for chores such as light cleaning and snow shoveling. During World War II, though, he had to hire extra help to take care of all the servicemen who wanted their pictures taken before they left, possibly forever.
As the studio era waned, Rentschler could have stayed busy by moving about, doing weddings or photographing industrial sites. But he preferred the studio. For the last ten years of his career, he shared space in the Talbot Studio on Main Street and continued taking formal portraits. The only time he ventured from the studio was for the football team pictures. He was willing to take those on-site because, when he moved out of his Huron Street studio, the athletic department had taken all his staging to Yost and would set it up for him every year. Rentschler retired in 1969 and died two years later.
Rentschler took home movies of his own family, but never casual photographs. Asked when he retired if he would take pictures of his family, he replied, "My wife takes candids. I'm strictly a studio man."
[Photo caption from the original print edition]: For decades, mayors, U-M presidents, ministers, and even the entire U-M football team made pilgrimages to Rentschler Photographers (above left) to have their pictures taken for posterity. It was undoubtedly founder Fred Rentschler who photographed his son Edwin and bride Lois Gates in 1926. The Rentschler studio and home on Huron were demolished in the 1960's to make room for City Hall.
[Photo caption from the original print edition]: Long after good-quality 35-mm film cameras appeared--including the Ann Arbor-made Argus--Edwin Rentschler stayed with glass negatives and a large view camera so heavy it could be moved around the room only on casters.
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