SPORTING A modest white goatee, a syrupy German accent and enough old-world elegance to make even a casual conversation seem bound in fine leather, Otto Bettman could not be any more grandfatherly. He's just not grandfatherly enough.
"People always ask me if my grandfather started it," says the lively 75-year-old founder and president of the Bettman Archive, the famous New York picture library that contains more than 3 million items on the history of civilization.
Bettman twinkles. "I don't mind being considered an institution."
In fact, he accepts responsibility for the time-worn venerability people associate with his barely middle-aged enterprise. He began calling his collection on "Archive" when he started it in Germany.
"There is no such word as "archive" in English," he says.
"It's "archives." When I came over, I had some apprehension about keeping the word. In English it connotes something of great antiquity. Somehow, I am the lucky inheritor of his image."
And of other images as well. Nattily attired in a trim navy-blue suit and a blue striped shirt, his red tie kept at perfect attention by his tie clip, Bettman's "enormous yearning for order and precision" announces itself in his clothes, the intricate classifications of his Archive, and his punctuality.
"The Prussian and the Bachian is still in me," he says apologetically.
If Bettman had been born in Cincinnati, where part of his family emigrated in the 19th century, he'd probably have been an all-American kid stacking up a pile of first-edition baseball cards. But Bettman was born in Leipzig. His first pictures came from his father's medical discards. And he listens with a steady, contemplative expression, disturbed only by a scholarly "hmmm" when a thought engages him.
"I didn't think terribly much of pictures in the beginning," he recalls. "I always wanted to become a doctor. In a way I was sidetracked, shunted, so to speak, into art and history and bookselling."
German inflation took care of the shunting, but as a Leipzig schoolboy, Bettman had already been sidetracked into the "avocation" of art history and picture-collecting. His father -- a bone surgeon and x-ray pioneer -- felt it "a forgivable hobby."
"My father had a wastebasket full of pictures from the medical-pharmaceutical firm. I started to cut them up. I assembled them. I remember once at his birthday, I put together some sort of pictorial history of medicine for him. Somehow, I don't know what really triggered it, I became a picture man from way back." Bettman went on to study art history at the University of Leipzig, receiving his PhD in 1927. After a few years of work in German publishing houses, he became curator of rare books at the State Art Library in Berlin, where he accumulated pictorial material at a rapid clip.
"I was guided to look at pictures from a cultural viewpoint," says Bettman, rummaging through his books for an example. "Not so much for what they tell of the artist and his thinking, but what they tell us about everyday life."
Bettman calls it "graphic shorthand." It informs us that "Greece had its joggers and pornographers" and that Renaissance women wore elevator shoes. He continued to assemble pictures by categories, annotating and cross indexing them, using them to document "how people lived, worked, and how they got sick" in different eras.
Years later, his spadework is still paying off. Last year, when the first test-tube baby was born, requests flowed into the Archive for something to illustrate the unphotographed event. Bettman turned immediately to an 1832 woodcut drawing for Goethe's Faust that depicts an alchemist dabbling with a chemical retort in which a manchild, "Homunculus," is percolating. That was one of last year's best sellers at the Archive.
"At the State Art Library," he remembers "I had the whole world of art at my disposal. I bought some photographic equipment and started flashing away. There was a kind of vision in my mind to make this a corpus of historical lore. I had no idea of making a living at it."
By 1933, however, Hitler had no intention of permitting German Jews to make a living in state posts. Bettman was fired. For a while he tried to "eke out a living" by turning to the strongest material in his collection.
"I established a sort of makeshift archive in Berlin. Pharmaceutical manufacturers came to me for something on herbals, on the history of insomnia and so on. But it was very difficult. Hitler issued a number and if you didn't have a number you couldn't even buy a postage stamp or write a letter."
Prodded to leave Germany by his family in Cincinnati, Bettman departed reluctantly in 1935.
"I was rather discouraged," remembers Bettman. "People said to me, 'Pictures won't go in America. Who wants pictures of Paris in 1500? America is the land of the skyscraper. You'll probably have to dump the few pictures you have in the Hudson.'"
Bettman's spirits picked up at German customs. Although he couldn't transport much property with him, he had crammed his prints and 35mm Leicka slides into two large steamer trunks. The customs officials let them go through.
"They looked at me rather pityingly: 'Some nut with all these pictures.' I had absolutely no trouble."
On the other side of the Atlantic, the American customs official welcomed him by displaying his own erudition.
"When I told him I was an art historian -- he seemed to be of German extraction -- he said, 'Oh yes, Durer, huh? We need such people here. I think you'll be all right here.'"
Not at first. Picked up by an old bookseller friend from Germany, Bettman heard the familiar somber predictions. His friend suggested that he donate his pictures to an association or library and became a librarian.
Instead Bettman went around knocking on doors. After scraping his knuckles with little success, an art dealer friend finally put him in touch with someone looking for an illustrator for one of "These series of books that you bought by the yard."
Bettman offered 500 pcitures for $900. The man liked the sound of $1,000 better. "That was the first time and the last time that anybody has offered me more for my pictures than I asked for."
The big sale propelled the Archive on its way. Publishers like Simon & Schuster began to patronize the Archive. Bettman set up shop in a coal celler between First and Second Avenues in Manhattan -- part of his and his wife's "railroad" apartment. Building up the Archive proved easier than Bettman expected.
"The great thing in America, if we speak of American lore, is that all government departments have their own pictorial history in nucleus in their departments, be it the Post Office or the Signal Corps or the Navy. And you can certainly visit them, you can buy pictures, and you can take your own photographs."
Other sources included the New York Public Library ("my daily Nirvana," Bettman calls it), other major libraries, and defunct picture archives. As his collection grew, so did the market. Time and Life were also getting started.
"I was lucky enough to sit on the wave of this new pictorial journalism," he reflects.
Now, 40 or so years later, the wave still hasn't crested for Bettman. The Archive is a "prosperous" business in the "modest million class."
Bettman bristles at being considered a "picture merchant." He considers himself a scholar whose collection illustrates that, as the title of one of his nine picture and text books puts it, "The Good Old Days -- They Were Terrible!"
"I must admit that I disparage this image of the businessman. I've always seen to it that our mailing pieces, our way of doing business, has a certain class to it," says Bettman.
Book publishers, newspapers and advertising agencies come to the Archive, says Bettman, because of its "structuring," which makes it a speedy "retrieval bank."
By now, the collection occupies 200 to 300 file cabinets in the Archive's offices on East 57th Street in Manhattan. Bettman divides all material into 47 categories -- number 35 is "Portraits." Interested in a poster of Lincoln?
"The Lincoln file," reports Bettman," is subdivided into maybe 30 subfiles -- Lincoln before Washington, Lincoln's death, Lincoln as a writer, and so on. It's all subdivided into ridiculous categories."
Bettman grins mischievously, at once proud and slightly embarrassed by his achievement.
"It is simply irreplaceable, slightly idiosyncratic system that can't be duplicated because of my incredible, foolish application to pictures from morning to night," declares Bettman. "It's a horse and buggy computer."
"I didn't have to sell this idea to American," he goes on. "To use an old chestnut, 'Time is Money.' You can go to the library and try to find a picture of Washington on a white horse, but it will take you two or three hours. Americans would rather pay 5, 10, 50 or or 100 dollars to get it in an hour."
Selectivity, not size, says Bettman, attracts many of his clients. His 10 to 12 researchers have the "expertise and the ability to develop categories" that enable the Archive to act as "a screen between the enormous mass of pictures and editorial use."
Thirty to forty requests for pictures are received on an average day. "We do not charge by rarity," explains Bettman, "but by application. If a man uses a picture in 50 newspapers, he's willing to give us $500, but if it's a news bulletin by the Virginia Historical Society, he pays us only $25."
Just as people think the Bettman commands its business by sheer weight of numbers, so the impression exists that the Bettman Archive houses rare treasures. Not so, says the boss.
"The Bettman Archive isn't a museum that assembles precious things. In a way, it's a democracy -- each picture is fairly equal. We have things that are amazing, astounding, yes. But really valuable in the monetary sense? -- No."
Once in a while, offbeat requests lighten the day at the Archive. One man requested a profile of the Mona Lisa. "It's a gag question," says Bettman with a shrug. But other requests apparently nettle the scholar in him.
"Ignorance is kind of bottomless," he remarks. "People don't think. They want a picture of Mrs. Charles the Great or Mrs. Richard the Second. There's simply nothing there."
The most difficult requests are for pictures of people who, Bettman says, "are very well known in our canon of values today" but who weren't always so famous. One such request, he recalls, was for Fahrenheit "inventing the thermometer."
"No one had the foggiest idea that Fahrenheit had any importance," observes Bettman professorially. "I think he was a pharmacist. I have set out a price of $1,000 for anyone who can give me a picture of him."
With his family now running the day-to-day operations of the Archive, Bettman has time to develop his restless scholarly side. He teaches "Pictorial History and Research" at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Fla., where he spends his winters, and he's working on a book about "life seen through the window of Bach," his enduring idol.
For all his advocacy of pictorial material as a key source for the understanding of history, Bettman plunges into words as exuberantly as the great German authors whose names sprinkle his conversation. He dismisses out of hand a maxim one would expect to find deeply embedded in the Bettman philosophy.
"I believe a word is often worth a thousand pictures," he asserts strongly. "I think the word is still all-powerful. You can't solve the petroleum questions by pictures, but you can by talking issues."
Bettman seems abashed.
"It sounds like I am biting the lens that is feeding me," he remarks grimacing at his image.