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Ford Motor CompanyPhotographic andFilm Department
During the first decade of the Ford Motor Company's existence, the company employed various photographers and photographic firms to provide images for many of the same reasons which led to the establishment of the Photographic Department: to furnish a record of production methodology, to provide illustrations for publications, and to provide publicity for Henry Ford and his company. Henry became interested in making movies in 1913 after seeing a film made by an outside production company about his Highland Park automobile factory. In April 1914, he told Ambrose B. Jewett in Ford’s Advertising Department to acquire a camera and someone to operate it. Within months, Ford Motor Company had a fully functioning motion picture department, the first of any American industrial firm.
The Photographic Department, which produced both moving pictures and still photographs, was the sole department until 1918. Initially located in the administration building of the Highland Park Plant, it moved in the mid-1920s to the Rouge Plant administration building in Dearborn, Michigan. In 1956, it relocated again to the World Headquarters administration building on Dearborn's Michigan Avenue.
At first the department's photographers focused on the visual documentation of company products, plants, and employees. Around the time of the move to the Rouge, however, the emphasis gradually shifted toward public relations and promotional functions. Very few internal textual documents that might shed light on the organization and administration of the department are extant; however, negatives and photographic prints still in the company's files in the 1950s were preserved and later donated to the Edison Institute (now The Henry Ford) in 1964. Some of the photographers employed by the Ford Motor Company were George Ebling, Joseph Farkas, Michael Malley, E.S. Purrington, William Stettler, and C.E. Wagner.
In 1918, a second Ford Motor Company photographic department, the Engineering Photographic Department, was formed to focus on engineering and technical imaging and located at the Fordson Tractor Plant on Oakwood Boulevard in Dearborn, Michigan.
In 1923, tractor operations were moved to the Rouge Plant and a building designed by Albert Kahn was constructed on the site. The Engineering Photographic Department moved into the new Engineering Laboratory, which Henry Ford also chose over the Rouge for the location of his administrative office. Nearby were the Ford Airport, Dearborn Inn, the Edison Institute and Greenfield Village (now The Henry Ford).
While the department focused primarily on design, engineering, and technical developments along with industrial initiatives like Ford Village Industries in initial years, by the mid-1920s, Henry's personal interests were also significantly represented. Photographers responded to Henry's requests for photography on a variety of subjects, especially his antiquarian, restoration, and educational interests. By 1929, staff began a separate negative series to differentiate the two. One negative log was maintained "For the Company" and a second "For Henry Ford."
Over 50,000 photographs from these Ford Photographic collections are item-level cataloged in The Henry Ford’s collections database. Thousands of these photographs are currently available in the online collections of The Henry Ford.
Henry Ford was intrigued by the possibilities of using motion picture film to train workers and to communicate to the public the news of the day and show them scenes of the world in which they lived—including the wonders of manufacturing at the Ford Motor Company. From its two-man staff in 1914, the Motion Picture Department quickly grew to 24, as the department acquired state-of-the-art 35mm cameras and established a film processing operation at the Highland Park Plant that would rival that of any Hollywood studio. The first film produced by the company, “How Henry Ford Makes One Thousand Cars a Day,” was, not surprisingly, about itself. The department concentrated on current events and educational features until the 1920s, when it began to promote popular topics such as good roads, safety, and modern farming methods. For many years, the Ford Motor Company was one of the largest film producers in the world, and the films were widely distributed both nationally and internationally.
In 1963, Ford Motor Company donated over 1,500,000 feet of motion picture film produced between 1914 and the early 1940s by the Company's Motion Picture Department to the United States National Archives. The Ford Film collection is encyclopedic in its coverage of current events, educational, and special topics of the period. Over the years, The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center (BFRC) has acquired quality copies of selected footage related to the early years of the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford's personal activities, and topics relating to The Henry Ford (formally Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village). Copies viewed in our online catalog and in YouTube are low resolution versions with time codes.
Permission for The Henry Ford to reproduce and distribute high resolution copies was received from the National Archives on December 15, 1994.
- Bray, Mayfield, Guide to the Ford Film Collection in the National Archives (1970).
- Bryan, Ford R., Henry’s Attic (1995), chapter 13, “Photographic Equipment” pages 333-334.
- Bryan, Ford R., Henry’s Lieutenant’s (1993), chapter “George Ebling” pages 96-102.
- Bryan, Ford R., Rouge: Pictured in Its Prime (2003), chapter 40, “Photographic Department,” p. 246-251.
- Lewis, David L., The Public Image of Henry Ford (1976), pages 114-118.
- Stewart, Phillip W., Henry Ford's Moving Picture Show: an Investigator's Guide to the Films Produced by the Ford Motor Company, Volume one: 1914-1920 (2011).
- “A Rare Look at Henry Ford – He Was a Filmmaker Too,” Detroit Free Press, May 1, 1978, 10B.
- “Films will Show Farmers How to Improve Methods,” Ford News, April 15, 1922, p. 6.
- “Following the Ford Movie Man,” Ford Times, Vol. 10, No. 7, 1917, p. 301-305.
- "Ford Movies,” The Ford Man, September 20, 1917, p. 3.
- “Ford Photographic Department Functions in Many Roles,” Ford News, June 15, 1925, p l3.
- “Henry Ford: Movie Producer,” Ford Life, February 1971, p. 17-19, 44.
- “Library Films to Open New Era …,” Ford News, Vol. 1, No. 11, 1921, p.1, 8.
- “Movies,” Ford News, Vol. 1, No. 2, Nov. 15, 1920, p. 1-2.
- “Nearly 30 Million Persons View Ford-Produced Movie Films…,” Ford Rouge News, May 2, 1958, p.6.
- “News Events in Picture Review,” Ford Times, Vol. 9, Number 10, May 1916, p. 459-461.
- “Pioneering the Business Film,” Public Relations Journal, June 1971, p. 14.
- “The Silent Celluloid Salesman,” Ford Times, Vol. 9, No. 12, July 1916, p. 534-540.
- “Thousands View Ford Tractor Film,” Ford News, May 15, 1922, p.3.
- “To Develop Long-Neglected Value of Films for Educational Purposes,” Ford News, February 1, 1922, p.6.
- “Traveling Show Takes Ford Story Direct to Prospects in Small Communities,” Ford News Dealer’s Supplement, July 1, 1930, p. 153-155.
Sample Archival Collections:
- Ford Motor Company—Photography and Film Department, Archives Vertical File, circa 1929-Ongoing.
- Accession 980, Ford Motor Company Film Collection Appraisal (unprocessed, no inventory).
- Accession 739, Box 5, Folder, Photographic, 1954-1955; 1956-1959, Ford Motor Company Public Relations Field Operations records.
- Accession 951, Box 11, Factory Facts from Ford, p. 54-55, Ford Motor Company Non-Serial Publications collection.
- Accession 1685, Photographic Library (Earle Harger) records series, 1938-1971.
- Accession 1481, C.E. Wagner collection (bulk 1915-1929) (unprocessed; see reference staff).
Sample Specific Resources
- “Information Regarding Materials Used by the Photographic Department, 9-30-1919 (Purchasing, Receiving & Checking in, Stock, Manufacturing & Selling, Shipping), Accession 75, Box 10, Folder 6, Misc. Correspondence, 1919-1927.
- “Interview with Mr. A.B. Jewett, Formerly Head of Photograph Dept. & Motion Picture Dept. of the Ford Motor Company, July 28, 1926, From Fay Leone Faurote…[for] Trust No. 2602, Re: Additional 1919 Income Tax”, Accession 96, Box 11, Folder, Jewett, A.B., Ford Motor Co. Photographic Dept.
- Letter from Fred H. Colvin, Editor, American Machinist, to R.H. Berry, Detroit Trust Co., November 26, 1926 [regarding photographs taken by Spooner & Wells of Ford Motor Company manufacturing for publication], Accession 96, Box 3, Folder, Colvin, Fred H., Re: Articles on FMC, American Machinist.
- Letters and Memos regarding taking a photograph of the Highland Park Plant at night from George R. Gunn to E.G. Liebold, Nov. 7, 1922; from Liebold to C.R. Frede, Photographic Dept. Nov. 13, 1922 “I am enclosing herewith copy of letter received from Mr. George R. Gunn. Will you kindly take a photograph of this scene some night when conditions are favorable?”; from C.R. Frede to E.G. Liebold 12-2-1922 “Herewith is a print of picture of night view of the HP Plant taken in 1918 referred to in our communication of 11-15-22. Would you suggest that a new view of this be taken?” (ID # P.833.22821 8-16-1918), Accession 285, Box 98, Folder 14.
Note: For assistance locating additional primary source material relating to the Ford Photographic and Film Department, please see the reference archivist on duty in the Reading Room.