The Photographic Art of Philadelphian Bill Rapp

Bill Rapp, Philadelphia-to-Camden Ferry on its Last Day of Operation, March 30, 1952. Bill Rapp Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

Bill Rapp, Philadelphia-to-Camden Ferry on its last day of operation, March 31, 1952. Bill Rapp Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.

I first spotted one of Bill Rapp’s photographs among the antiques at the Fitler Square Fair in our old neighborhood in Philadelphia.  This was around 1980. Bill’s wife Jean dealt in prints and old documents, and  in her booth she had a beautiful image of the interior of the old Philadelphia-to-Camden Ferry. The price was a little more than I wanted to pay, by my artist wife Ditta encouraged me to buy it.  Bill made his living as an advertising agent, not a photographer, but he had a wonderful eye and his printing was impeccable.

A portion of the collection of Bill Rapp originals that we acquired in the 1980s.

A portion of our collection of Bill Rapp originals that we acquired in the 1980s.

At the annual spring fairs over the next several years, Ditta and I acquired additional prints of Bill’s beautiful work.  My particular interest was the rare slices of Philadelphia history that Bill had captured. Ditta, the photographer-artist, had a particular appreciation for the artistry of Bill’s work. By the time Bill died in 1989 we had accumulated a nice collection of his photographs.  What happened next, however, was unexpected.  About a year after Bill died there was a knock at our front door — it was Jean Rapp.  She held tightly in her hands a sizable batch of photographic negatives bundled together with a rubber band.  They were Bill’s. She said that because we had shown so much interest in Bill’s work over the years she wanted Ditta and me to have the negatives to print whatever copies we wanted for ourselves.  When we finished with them, Jean asked that we donate them to the Free Library of Philadelphia.  We gratefully accepted the negatives and the responsibility that went with them.  Not long after this we learned that Jean, too, had passed away.

Bill Rapp, Horticultural Hall, Philadelphia, before 1957. This building was a relic of the U.S. Centennial Eshibition in 1876. It was destroyed by Hurricane Hazel in 1957. Bill Rapp Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.

Bill Rapp, Horticultural Hall, Philadelphia. This building was a relic of the U.S. Centennial Exhibition in 1876. It was destroyed by Hurricane Hazel in 1957. Bill Rapp Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.

In those days Ditta had a darkroom in our house for her own work.  She hired a student to come in and make rough prints of the negatives so we would know what we had.  The resulting proofs were fine, but we weren’t ready to part with the negatives because we lacked the resources then to print the images in the finished quality they deserved.  Years passed with Bill’s negatives and the proof prints resting quietly in storage.

Bill Rapp, Ship maintenance, Philadelphia, ca. 1950. Bill Rapp Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.

Bill Rapp, Ship Maintenance, Philadelphia, ca. 1950. Bill Rapp Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.

In 2011, we decided it was finally time to deal properly with Bill’s legacy.  In the meantime we had become friends with Mike Froio, a photographer and instructor at Drexel University. We arranged with Mike to clean and scan all  of Bill’s negatives.  Ditta selected more than a hundred of them to be printed in archival form.  In 2012 and 2013 we donated two large albums of these prints to the Free Library of Philadelphia along with an indexed archive housing all of Bill’s original negatives.   We also gave the Library a set of disks containing the scans of the negatives and photographs  along with a digital inventory.

Bill Rapp, Street scene, 9th and Bainbridge Streets, Philadelphia, ca. 1950. Bill Rapp Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.

Bill Rapp, Street scene, 9th and Bainbridge Streets, Philadelphia, ca. 1950. Bill Rapp Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.

Recently, the Free Library finished loading many of Bill’s images online; you can see them by clicking here (look for the live lambs that were once sold in the Italian market to be turned into Easter dinner).   Curator Laura Stroffolino also posted a nice blog entry about the collection that you can read here. It is a privilege to participate in preserving the legacy of a fine artist whose work might otherwise have been lost.

Bill Rapp, O.U. Lunch ("Baked Beef Hash Rice and Carrots 35 cents"), Philadelphia, 1950s. Bill Rapp Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.

Bill Rapp, O.U. Lunch (“Baked Beef Hash Rice and Carrots 35 cents”), Philadelphia, 1950s. Bill Rapp Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia.

Stories about the Hoeber family are to be found in Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939, published by the American Philosophical Society. Information is available here. Also available at Amazon.com

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A Gift Over Four Generations

Set of fish knives and forks given to Rudolf and Josephine Marx Höber at the time of their wedding, Berlin,  August 10, 1901.

Set of fish knives and forks given to Josephine Marx and Rudolf Höber at the time of their wedding, Berlin, August 10, 1901.

Special sets of knives and forks for eating fish became popular in Europe in the late 19th century.  The steel blades used at that time in ordinary silverware would react with  fish in a way that imparted an unpleasant metallic taste.  Fish sets had silver-plated brass blades and tines that did not interfere with the delicate taste of fish.  The set pictured here was given to my grandparents, Rudolf and Josephine Marx Höber, as a wedding present at the time of their marriage on August 10, 1901.

Josephine Marx on the day of her wedding to Rudolf Höber, August 10, 1901 at her mother's apartment in Berlin.

Josephine Marx on the day of her wedding to Rudolf Höber, August 10, 1901, at her mother’s apartment in Berlin.

Rudolf and Josephine Höber with their first child, Johannes, around December 1904.

Rudolf and Josephine Höber with their first child, Johannes, around December 1904.

 Rudolf and Jospehine were fortunate in being able to bring the fish set with them when they were driven out of Nazi Germany and fled to America in 1934.

Fischbesteck 2

After Rudolf and Josephine died, the fish set was passed on to my parents, Johannes and Elfriede Hoeber.

Johannes and Elfriede Höber at the time of their marriage, December 22, 1928

Elfriede Fischer and Johannes U. Höber at the time of their marriage, Düsseldorf, December 22, 1928.

 After my parents’ deaths, the fish set came to me and my wife, Ditta.

F and D wedding

Ditta Baron and Francis W. Hoeber at their wedding, Philadelphia, July 1, 1967.

On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2014, our younger son Julian married Heather Rasmussen, at the Maritime Hotel in New York City.  We decided that this was the time to pass the fish set on to a fourth generation.  We made a new silvercloth wrapper for the forks and knives and a new box.

Fischbesteck 4

Fischbesteck 1

The  silver set, newly polished after a century of use, is now with Julian and Heather in Los Angeles.

Julian Hoeber and Heather Rasmussen, Los Angeles, December 2014.

Julian Hoeber and Heather Rasmussen, Los Angeles, December 2014.