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Bob Bailey opened his photography studio in 1929, after an abortive try at a law career. He started in the downtown basement of the Stewart Title Company, but eventually moved out to Allen Parkway and, later, to Yale Street in the Heights. His younger brother Marvin worked as a messenger for him in high school and later came on as a photographer.
The beginnings were humble enough -- the brothers had to make their own tripods and developing equipment -- but eventually they were constantly busy.
Bob also did film and newsreel work, shooting football games at the professional, college and high school levels, and getting telegrams from Fox or Movietone News assigning him to breaking stories like the Texas City disaster or the bloody end of Bonnie and Clyde.
Bob was the creative one of the pair, while Marvin was a master technician, says Marvin's son, Ken.
"Bob was very charming; he was the commodore of the Lakewood Yacht Club and very social," says Ken, who now works in video production. "He had a great eye, very creative. My father was probably the best technical photographer I've ever seen. He wasn't the most creative, but he could go into the most difficult situations and come out with images you couldn't believe."
If that involved climbing light poles at the old Jeppesen Stadium, he did it, lugging the heavy equipment of the day.
The brothers shot everything, and they did it with an eye for quality -- 8x10 negatives that provided incredibly sharp images, even of crowd scenes. Later they switched to 4x5 negatives, and eventually the more standard 35 millimeter.
They shot the famous -- they had a deal with a theater chain, so they went out when Judy Garland, or Red Skelton, or Gary Cooper came to town. Or when a promoter gathered a group of Native Americans in headdress to stand downtown in front of the Loew's State marquee for Randolph Scott's The Last of the Mohicans. They shot sports, from facemask-free Southwestern Conference tilts at the old Rice Stadium to a young Stan Musial batting at Buffs Stadium. They shot scenes from everyday life: company picnics, noirish nighttime street scenes, beaming waitresses behind diner counters. They shot people's artwork, for home insurance purposes. In the days before photocopying was common, they even took pictures of large checks or important paperwork.
They shot an oil rig crew taking a break. That's nothing spectacular (beyond, perhaps, seeing a roughneck casually smoking a cigarette a few feet from a working rig) until the oil field's location is mentioned: between 11th and 18th streets in the Heights. They shot hundreds of photos of the swanky Shamrock Hotel, including a battalion of bellboys dressed smartly in line. They shot crowds hanging off the balcony of the Rice Hotel to cheer hometown boy Howard Hughes as he paraded in 1938 after setting a record for circumnavigating the globe.
They did the photos of the 1937 marching band of what was then St. Thomas College, and they shot a classroom of smiling elementary students in 1950 at what a caption calls "the newly built Jewish school."
Corinne Dune, the conservator who assessed the physical state of the collection for UT, says she was taken aback by "the incredible variety of subjects covered in the photographs I examined -- fashion photographs, construction of buildings, oil drills, automobiles, industrial photography of mechanic parts and furniture, lines of soldiers coming back from the second world war. Definitely a big part of Houston history."
Both brothers are dead, but apparently they didn't throw out much. Each job was entered in a log, in alphabetical order by client (a method that is vexing UT staffers). The negatives were stored in standard business envelopes and banker's boxes and piled in the storage rooms of the studio. (That method, too, proved troublesome.)
Bob died in 1971 and Marvin soldiered on, but as retirement loomed in the mid-1990s, he began to look for an institution to which he could donate the collection. He quickly found out he had a white elephant on his hands.
Any serious effort to keep the collection for posterity would require at least some expensive cold storage to prevent deterioration. Properly cataloging the pictures would call for endless staff-hours of work; any move to digitize the photos would be hugely expensive.
Marvin Bailey went to the mayor's office and to local universities but was turned away. "The city can't commit to anything and the University of Houston, Rice and Texas A&M weren't interested," he told the Houston Chronicle in 1994, four years before his death.
"Rice seemed to have the greatest interest," says Ken, who played a big role in preserving the archive. "And we had so many pictures of Rice that we would really have liked for it to end there. But it's such a mammoth physical undertaking that they just felt they couldn't do it."
"I compare these collections to people with free kittens or gerbils -- if you can find someone willing to take them, you're happy to give them. But you have to find someone willing to take them," he says.