In 1957, Washington photographer Theodor Horydczak approached the Library of Congress to see if it was interested in buying his life’s work: approximately 17,500 black-and-white photographs, 14,000 negatives and 1,500 color transparencies, a collection that represented a veritable visual encyclopedia of the District from the 1920s to the 1950s.
The library said no thanks.
That turned out to be okay, because in 1973, two years after Horydczak died, his family donated the whole batch anyway. Today, you can go to www.loc.gov/pictures, type in “Horydczak,” and see digitized images of old D.C. streetcars, grocery stores, apartment buildings, memorials, statues, bridges and lots more.
Or you can go Thursday evening to Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Falls Church, where a rare collection of Horydczak’s work — including mural-size silver gelatin prints — will be sold.
We don’t know a lot about Horydczak. He was probably an immigrant from Eastern Europe. He was in the Army Signal Corps, which is likely where he learned photography. He was doubtless one of the city’s busiest freelance photographers. Early in his career, he specialized in copy work — photographing paintings and the like for insurance purposes. Later, he moved to architectural work. Some of his photos were used on postcards.
“It would be interesting to find out what kind of person he was,” said Monika Schiavo, the sales and marketing director at Quinn’s who helped put together the sale.
It would also be interesting to find out how these prints, about 40, ended up in the possession of Charles Weaver, a woodworker from Madison County, Va. It was at a 1997 estate sale after his death that Nancy Southard, a retired school system secretary, bought them. They were in a tightly wrapped and sealed cylinder. Nancy paid less than $75, thinking the cylinder might contain art prints.
“When I bought them, I went directly home and opened them up,” she said. “I was shocked that it was vintage photographs and they were in such good condition.” (Estimates for the prints in Thursday’s sale run between $300 and $2,500.)
As a student of D.C. history, I’ve seen a lot of Horydczak photos. I’ve always discerned a certain sterility in them.
“I like to think of it as precision rather than sterility,” said Beverly Brannan, curator of photography at the Library of Congress. She’s been working on the Horydczak collection for more than 30 years.
Would he have considered himself an artist?
“I don’t think so,” Beverly said. “I think he thought of himself as a guild craftsman. He did play around a little bit with design, but for the most part, he was making technologically proficient pictures, documenting things rather than interpreting them.”
Because Horydczak preferred that his images not have people in them, they can look a bit like empty stage sets. There was one exception: He photographed the Bonus Army that marched to Washington in 1932, possibly because he felt a kinship with his fellow World War I veterans.
“He was not a ‘hail fellow well met’ kind of guy,” said Beverly, who interviewed photographers who knew Horydczak for a 1979 journal article. “He would figure out what picture he wanted to make and what time would be the best to do it. Then he’d go off for the day and sort of sit by himself or go to a bar and wait for it to be the right time, the light to be right, then he’d go out and take his picture.”
Frankly, I’d always sort of thought Horydczak wasn’t a very good photographer, but that’s because I’d seen his images only online. The Library of Congress digitized the collection in the 1980s, when scanning technology was primitive. The negatives themselves are sharp. Seeing the massive prints at Quinn’s — a gleaming Capitol dome reflected in a wet street, the chiaroscuro in a shadow-bathed Lincoln statue, the cloud-speckled sky behind the Washington Monument — allowed me to see that he was a proficient craftsman after all, if not quite an artist.
“He was a hardworking person,” Beverly said. “That’s how he was making his living. He was not just waiting around to make pictures. He was being very aggressive about making the pictures.”
The library’s collection includes a few self-portraits, including one of a nattily dressed Horydczak reclining next to his massive Ansco field camera, its bellows fully extended. Like every good photographer, he’s waiting for the light.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.