Cover from the book by W. Douglas Hartley. reprinted courtesy of Indiana Historical Society
by Bill Weaver
Probably the most remarkable thing is that we know about Otto Ping at all. A common man without pretension or connection to the art community, Ping saw what he did—photography—as a service, like selling firewood or canning beans. In those days owning a camera was uncommon and it didn’t take Otto Ping long after buying his first camera in 1900 to discover that people would pay him to take their pictures. From that day on he roamed the hills of Brown County photographing the people who lived here, their homes, children, pets, work animals, workplaces, gatherings, and recently departed. He left a legacy that we’re only beginning to appreciate.
W. Douglas Hartley was the discoverer of Otto Ping and his work. A professor of art at Illinois State University Hartley grew up in nearby Columbus. As a boy he spent many a summer day bicycling in southern Brown County and often returned to the area to visit his family. It was during one of these visits that he noticed the art of Henry Cross, the carver of the famous “Stone Head” highway marker, whose work can be seen on tombstones in cemeteries throughout the southern part of the county. While searching out the story of Henry Cross (published as The Search for Henry Cross by the Indiana Historical Society) he discovered Otto Ping, who lived on Cross’s old property. Little did Hartley suspect that he was about to discover another story, just as compelling.
“I met Otto Ping when he was about 65 years old,” Professor Hartley said in a 1999 interview with
Our Brown County magazine. “I had known him for a couple years before he mentioned to me casually that he used to take pictures! He never really knew what he was and that’s too bad. His heirs didn’t have any idea the importance the pictures and plates were culturally and historically. They thought it must be important because a college professor was interested in it.”
What Hartley had discovered was a unique cache of photographs from the first forty years of the 20th century. The pictures were of a people who were authentic remnants of the pioneers, who did not know how to pose for a camera like people do today. Stored in the attic of his home for fifty years, almost forgotten, wearing away with time, there were hundreds of glass negatives that Ping had taken of his friends and neighbors, his family and strangers. Faces like stone mountains, of people who had been alive when the Ten o’ Clock Line still divided Brown County.
Photography was one of Ping’s many occupations. He was mostly a farmer, growing and canning vegetables, raising chickens and selling their eggs. Ping was also a traveling salesman, truck driver, and an entrepreneur who sold canning equipment and trained others in its use, for a time running a canning plant in Pikes Peak. “He had ideas but living in a poor rural county there just wasn’t enough capital for him to accomplish much,” Hartley said sympathetically.
During one of his photographic excursions Ping met a young woman, Clara Ewers. They married and had two children, Irene and Bryce. Some of his most endearing and spontaneous photographs are of his family. Hartley was also given Clara’s diary. “It was from soon after they were married and she kept it daily for about two years, longhand. It’s incredible and a very important historical document,” he remembered.
Otto Ping’s photographs are unstudied, no doubt about that. While he did have a sense of space and arrangement, his work is functional without pretension. Backdrops are haphazard using whatever material is available. Lighting is perfunctory. His subjects stare seriously at the camera, like they’re making out their wills. But like all good art the pictures transcend their limitations revealing a world those people—our ancestors—once inhabited. Cameras really do steal a piece of the soul.
“It took awhile to get people interested in Otto Ping’s work,” Hartley said. “He was a photographer but not an itinerant photographer. It’s because I was interested in his work that he finally got recognition. We’re getting to a place historically where scholars are beginning to pay attention to folk history, things ordinary people are doing—somebody besides presidents and generals. We’re finally recognizing that it’s important to know how the average person lived.”
Otto Ping died after an accident at the age of 92. His work is being conserved in the Indiana Historical Society Library. W. Douglas Hartley’s book Otto Ping Photographer of Brown County 1900–1940 can be found at the Bookloft in Nashville and from the Indiana Historical Society.