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The Story of Bill Stettner

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 60’s - 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.

'The Double Face', © Bill Stettner 1963

“I wanted to make a picture that made the point that underneath it all, we’re all the same.  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 now 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 when 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 peter.adams@peteradams.com

We need to remember Bill Stettner and his images.

Written by Peter Adams
Peter Adams

4/12/2012 3:05:55 AM from Ken Pivak

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! Ken

5/16/2012 7:19:57 PM from michael bajko

Kia Ora Bill! What a Great Man you are. A Man of Principle and Justness, as well as a Fantastic Photographer. Your photos might have been ripped off yet your Spirit looms Large!! Kia Kaha e Tu Ne! Thanks Peter for bringing this to us. Cheers Michael (Aotearoa/New Zealand)

6/14/2012 6:17:16 AM from Ashlee Adams

Thanks so much for posting this - I am always ready to thank our quiet heros from the past who made our lives so much easier in the photography world - I am so spoiled with my digital Canon 40d , and the clicks of my computer - the Double Face picture is magnificant , because they WAS NO photoshop in that day ! Great article - adding to my list of mental thank you notes :) SO thankful for his fight with the copyrighting of my images !

6/17/2012 1:08:48 PM from Jack Reznicki

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. To clarify the copyright is

7/5/2012 7:09:23 PM from Peter Adams

HELP NEEDED: All of Bill Stettner's prints and work were removed from his studio just after his death by persons unknown. If anyone knows the whereabouts of any of his work, please contact me at peter.adams@peteradams.com. His family would love to own a few of his memories - no questions asked. Regards Peter Adams More of Bill's work on www.peteradams.com

7/10/2012 1:48:59 PM from Peeter Altosaar

Thank you, Peter Adams, for that short and touching biography of Bill Stettner. I had just finished my degree at McGill University in 1968 and was working in Canada's far north, when Martin Luther King JR was shot. I was then a photographer as well, not professional mind you, but I love the art. I've read a lot about famous photographers but have never heard of Bill Stettner. I'm glad that you brought him to my attention. All the best.

8/8/2012 8:55:46 AM from Merlyn Vergara

Your the man Sir I want to be great Photographer like you..I work as a Photographer before in Kodak but I was not professional photographer like you I really admired you Sir for your wonderful and meaningful work..and thanks to Sir Peter

8/16/2012 5:06:44 AM from Larry Chiger

I assisted Bill, and then became his studio manager, from 1977-80. I had been completely unaware of the terrible losses (financial, prosessional and joyful) that he suffered in his later years. During my years working with him, Bill was a larger than life, peripatetic, table-top and illustration photographer who wanted to get the most out of every minute he was alive. He was a funny, irreverent, generous to a fault, driven, substance enthusiast, woman adoring, perfectionist, principled, husba

8/21/2012 2:06:01 PM from Alan Devins

Just came across this site and read this article as it was the first on the page. I admit that I hadnt heard of Bill before but can certainly appreciate all that he had done for photographers. Very sad to read about his last days. Really disgusting what some people can do!

9/9/2012 2:34:56 AM from Mike Wishart

Thank you Peter Adams for this illuminating article on Bill Stettner and his huge and largely unsung contribution to all photographers around the world. His images " American Flag " and " The Double Face " are truly exceptional and show what a shame it is that his life's work has been 'lost'. Hopefully someone comes forward with informational leading to the recovery of his negatives and prints. They deserve to be on public display. I'll remember Bill Stettner and his images.

9/24/2012 2:17:35 AM from Maria Turley

I came across this article by accident and Im sure glad I did - I too had never heard of Bill and now I can thank you for the article and mostly thank Bill for the work in fighting for the 'copyright' in photography. I will definitely remember his name. RIP Bill.

10/2/2012 6:21:30 PM from Mike Stoba

Thank you Bill Id say thankyou Peter Adams, but which one? Web has USA based and Australia based . This blog copy is attributed but not sourced, kinda messing with the whole theme of it.

10/22/2012 10:57:08 PM from Kambourian

My father Ron was a good friend of Bill's in NYC being an ad man from way back he was lucky enough to be sent an original one of only 20 i believe. My Dad hung onto the photo through 4 countries and over 40 years and reading Bill's story makes me sad to see how many of the original ad and photo men from that generation never got the kudos they deserve. The photo is in excellent condition and i still have it today

1/16/2013 12:02:41 PM from Chuck Adorney

Peter, it is very kind and thoughtful of you to put this biography of Bill Stettner together. I had spent a great deal of time trying to get in touch with Bill during the past couple of years with no success. My son, Mark, who is much more adept at searching through the internet, sent me your tragic biography of him. I first met Bill when he was doing a photographic assignment for me. Although I am retired, at that time I was an Executive Art Director and Creative Director at Ross Roy Adverti

1/27/2013 6:19:21 PM from Gary Kane

I worked for Bill Stettner in the early 80's as an assistant right out of FIT. The lessons and the humility that he taught me are still with me today. Bill had a gruff exterior but a giant heart. Especially if he liked you. I unfortunately missed the heyday of the sex, drugs, and rock n roll, and had to witness all too painfully the demise of a great illustration photographer. His studio was like the Taj Mahal, complete with an office likened to a kasbah above the studio. The bulk of work t

7/20/2014 10:19:00 PM from Ray Garcia

I was an assistant of Bill's back in the early 70's. The greatest lesson I got from Bill was "Do it now". He taught me not to procrastinate, ever. Bill was definitely into the ladies, even tho married to a stone fox. Both his mistress and his studio manager happily seduced me. Good times. Bless you Bill Stettner.

11/21/2014 8:54:27 AM from Emily Watlington

To Peter and all who knew Bill Stettner, I'm writing from the JFK Library and am unable to contact Peter via this website or the email listed. We have a collection of wedding photographs from the 1940s and 1950s by a William Stettner. If you have any pertinent information, please contact me: emily.watlington@nara.gov

1/25/2015 7:37:38 PM from Dave Smith

What a sad story, even without his advocation of Photographers rights this would be a dark sentence in the history of photography. The bullying and greed of the corporations is truly shocking and their hold on the rest of us should really be wrested completely and irrevocably! Dave

4/18/2015 4:31:13 AM from hogan a roma

Nommé le 20 mars dernier à la tête du conseil de ville de Conakry, le gouverneur Soriba Sorel Camara, a une recette miracle face à l'énorme défi que représente l'assainissement de la capitale : ''le franc guinéen''. Là où son prédécesseur, usant de campagnes d'assainissement opportunistes ou d'intimidation à relents propagandistes à l'endroit des élus, avait échoué, Soriba Sorel compte réussir en misant sur une généreuse distribution de billets de banque.

6/23/2015 2:52:03 PM from Frank Zimmermann

wow is all i can say - we all owe him who license work today - i would like to know more. I hope his work is will preserved and that maybe the new owners have some good intentions and are not completely evil.

5/11/2016 1:54:17 PM from Hunt Smith

Hello All, I was Bill's assistant when he and his then partner John Paul (Buddy) Endress had a studio on 29th Street in NYC. 1967 - what days those were!!

8/28/2016 5:14:15 PM from Anne Stettner Lalley

Bill Stettner and I were married on August 4, 1962, unfortunately, our marriage dissolved in 1965. I was truly happy to read the article about him. He was a talented individual with strong ideals. I am still in touch with his sister in San Francisco, but unfortunately cannot shed any light on his missing work. Thank you for a fitting tribute to Bill.

1/15/2018 9:32:10 PM from Jack Lardis

Bill did a lot of work for me at J. Walter Thompson until he challenged the copyright inequity that destroyed his commercial photography career but helped photographers control their copyright. I have a signed dye transfer of his iconic match flag and as I am divesting by art and photo collection I am looking for a home for this historic and relevant image. I can be contacted by Email at: jackart31@aol.com Jack Lardis

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