by Mark Blackwell
drawing by Joe Lee
Everybody these days carries around a camera of some description. Some of them take snapshots, some are movie cameras, and some of them serve both purposes. Some models even serve as telephones.
Back before the Second World War cameras were expensive, complicated, and scarce. If you look back 100 years, there weren’t more than a handful of folks taking pictures in Brown County.
The photographer that first comes to everybody’s mind is Frank Hohenberger. He was born in 1876 over in Defiance, Ohio. He was orphaned at age five and was raised by his grandparents on his father’s side. Not a lot is known about his early life but he found his way to Indianapolis in 1902 and went to work at the Indianapolis Star newspaper. He served as a compositor for the next seven years and then went to work as photographer for the H. Lieber Company.
Frank went back to work for the Star in 1914 and left again in 1916 going back to photography. The story goes that he was developing and printing pictures for other folks when he came across a roll of film that piqued his interest. It included scenes from Brown County. And in 1917 he moved to Nashville and established his own photography studio.
From that time on Hohenberger documented the landscape and people of Brown County. He took his own pictures and sold prints, contracted special projects, and maintained a column in the Sunday Indianapolis Star from 1923 to 1954. His column was titled “”Down in the Hills o’ Brown County.” It was these weekly sketches of the people and life illustrated with his photographs that give us today an insight into the way things used to be here.
Hohenberger’s pictures are iconic. He captured the courthouse “Liars Bench” in full bloom circa 1924 and its sad demise, five years later on All Saints day 1929. He documented the landscape with pictures of cabins, barns, a loaded hay wagon on a dusty country road, and bare-foot boys fishing on a summer afternoon. He captured, forever, moments of sunlight in the seasons of Brown County. But he knew that these scenes were only a backdrop and that the life of the land was the people who lived here.
He took portraits of the folks who shaped this county’s personality; people like Chris Brummett, Grandma Barnes and her husband “Wash,” Sheriff Sam Parks, boarding house hostess Allie Ferguson, and musicians Doc and Diner Biesel. Along with the larger than life characters who animated the place, he also captured the most beautiful landscapes and documented them for the outside world.
Otto Ping, another Brown County photographer, lived down around Christiansburg. He was born in 1883 to a typical Brown County family who eked out a living from the land. He bought his first camera in 1900 from Sears and Roebucks for $12.95. Starting at the age of 17 Otto offered his photography services to his neighbors to commemorate their families, homesteads, livestock, and special occasions. For about a dollar anyone could get Otto to come to their home for a portrait. Otto offset his overhead by living with his parents and it appears that he limited himself to mainly photographing paying subjects. He did not speculate on journalistic or art photographs.
Sometime around 1906 Otto came across an itinerant logging family named Ewers and made two portraits for them. Among the members of that family was an attractive teenage girl named Clara who caught Otto’s eye and four years later they were married. And they stayed married, literally for better or worse, richer or poorer, until Otto passed on at the ripe old age of 92. In the intervening sixty years Ping did what most Brown Countians did—whatever it took to survive.
In 1912 there was a fire at the Ping residence. The house burned down along with Otto’s cameras and equipment. Neither Otto, Clara, or their baby daughter was hurt but the fire left him without a way to earn a living. They sold what they could and headed off to South Dakota to work for Otto’s brother on his farm. That sojourn only lasted a year and the Ping family returned to Brown County.
Clara kept a detailed household expense diary describing Otto’s purchase of another camera. Although he took up photography again he never again relied on it for the larger part of his income. It was in his nature to continually try new ventures. During his life he raised chickens commercially, sold home canning equipment to farm wives, organized home canning clubs, and sold the canned goods to grocery stores in the area. He sold fruit trees, ran a cream route, and was a huckster for a while.
For more information on Frank Hohenberger I recommend the Book Frank M. Hohenberger’s Indiana Photographs edited by Cecil K. Byrd, published by Indiana University Press, 1993 and the book If You Don’t Outdie Me by Dillon Bustin and published by Indiana University Press 1982. For a look at the photographs of Otto Ping there is the book, Otto Ping, Photographer of Brown County, Indiana 1900-1940 by W. Douglas Hartley, published by the Indiana Historical Society 1994.