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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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