When longtime Baltimore Sun photographer Robert Kniesche died in 1976, a colleague praised him as “one of the best cameramen The Baltimore Sun ever knew.”(1) Although far more obscure than his famous contemporary at The Sun, Aubrey Bodine, Kniesche left behind a body of photographic work that stands among the best produced by a Marylander photographer.
Born in Baltimore in 1906, Kniesche recognized his calling early on, and he left Baltimore Polytechnic Institute without graduating to pursue a career as a photographer. In the mid 1920s, The Baltimore Sun hired Kniesche on as a news photographer, his first stint with the newspaper. Kniesche joined the staff a few years after Bodine, who at the time was a commercial photographer for the paper.
Kniesche and Bodine became fast friends and often traveled around Baltimore together on picture-taking excursions. Together, they snapped photographs of many of the same subjects that would bring both of them acclaim later in their careers: images of the city at night, the harbor, and Baltimore industry. They were also drinking buddies. The pair, joined by Raleigh Carroll, a Sun reporter and Bodine’s housemate at the time, and another Sun photographer Leigh Sanders, lived “high and well on their $40 and $50-a-week salaries”(2) In the prohibition years of the 1920s, they frequented the various speakeasies in the area around Park Avenue where Bodine lived. Every year they would attend the annual Bal des Arts, a wild, costume themed party held by Charcoal Club, Baltimore’s historic art club established in 1885. According to one Bodine biographer, “a day or two before the ball they would get a supply of gin from the busy bootleggers. Bodine and Kniesche carried their gin and juice in two suitcases. They would meet in the basement of the Charcoal Club on Preston street to apply their makeup and start ‘to get a package on,’ an expression in those days for getting drunk.”(3) Over the course of their long careers, the two often found themselves in friendly competition in local and national photograph competitions.
Kniesche left The Baltimore Sun for a brief period in the late 1920s to work for the Chicago Tribune. He returned though in 1930, and aside from four years spent in the U.S. Navy during World War II as a pilot and flying instructor, where he attained the rank of Lieutenant Commander, Kniesche remained with the Baltimore paper for the next 40 years. In 1947 Kniesche organized the photographic department of the Sun owned WMAR-TV, the first television station in Maryland, and shot the first local films shown on the station. When he retired in 1971, he had been the chief of photography for The Sun’s morning, evening, and Sunday staffs for over two decades.
As a photojournalist for Maryland’s leading newspaper, Kniesche documented virtually everything newsworthy, from presidential inaugurations, National Football League games, and aerial shows, to the opening of the oyster dredging season and city architecture. One of his early assignments after returning to Baltimore from Chicago in 1930 was to photograph the aftermath of Maryland’s first lynching since 1911. On December 4, 1931, Matthew Williams, an African-American man accused of murdering his white employer, was lynched on the front lawn of the Salisbury courthouse on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Kniesche was with a group of reporters and photographers sent by The Sun to cover the event. In his memoirs, H.L. Mencken, Kniesche’s co-worker at the newspaper, wrote that, “all the reporters who were sent to Salisbury from the home office were threatened with violence and one of the photographers, Robert F. Kniesche, was saved from rough handling, and maybe even murder, only by escaping in an airship.”(4) Kniesche would go on to photograph the famed journalist on many occasions over the following decades.
Like Bodine, Kniesche was an artist and master craftsman. One reviewer noted that he seemed “to have made a fetish of focus, [delighting] in knife-edge precision.”(5) Both photographers had an affinity for certain subject matter and many photos that Kniesche took could be easily be mistaken for Bodine’s and vice versa: duck hunters silhouetted against an early morning sky; blast furnaces spewing out flames at Bethlehem steel; oyster tongers on the Chesapeake. Kniesche was particularly renowned for his aerial photographs and photographic essays. One award winning series of his photographs that accompanied a 1949 series of Sun articles entitled “Maryland’s Shame the Worst Story the Sunpapers ever told” helped expose the deplorable conditions then rampant in Maryland’s state mental health facilities to the general public.
Kniesche was also very fond of animals and images of baboons, tigers, monkeys, and especially house cats, can be found throughout the collection of his photographs at the Maryland Historical Society. In his obituary, The Sun noted that Kniesche’s images of animals were executed “with an often sensitive and humorous approach to their expressions, habits postures and activities.”(6) He often posed his subjects in amusing positions accompanied by a humorous caption.
His photographs won many awards and were exhibited both nationally and abroad as far away as Helsinki, Finland. His work was shown in cultural institutions throughout Maryland, including the Peale Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art. Kniesche rarely sold any of his prints, preferring to give them away to friends
The Maryland Historical Society has over 7,000 negatives and prints that Kniesche took over the course of his career. Most of these are part of PP79, the Robert Kniesche Photograph Collection. At this point, 5,000 of the film and glass plate negatives are available to the public. The remaining 2,000 prints are currently being processed and should be available by the fall of 2013.(Damon Talbot)
Click on the slideshow below to see more of Robert Kniesche’s photographs.
The Crown Cork and Seal Company was founded in 1892 by William Painter soon after he patented the ‘crown cork,’ the first bottle cap. Located on the corner of Eastern Ave and Kresson Street in Canton, the company was producing half the world’s supply of bottle caps by the 1930s. Kniesche captured this image of a fire that began when two storage sheds containing 3000 bales of raw cork ignited.
In May of 1956 Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus’ last outdoor show in Baltimore under canvas tent was held at Herring Run Park. The show featured such performers as Glenn Pulley, the “Thin Man,” who weighed 62 pounds; Ella Mills, the 586-pound "Fat Lady" from Wisconsin; Harry Doll, a 30-inch, 38-pound 44-year-old who was known as the "World's Smallest Man.", a “Human Corkscrew,” and of course, clowns.
Like his fellow Baltimore Sun photographer Aubrey Bodine, one of Kniesche’s favorite photographic subjects was the sea, and he produced some of his most picturesque work when he turned his camera to the water. One admirer described a Kniesche photograph of log canoes on the Chesapeake as “one of the most beautiful pictures I have ever seen – and much more beautiful than anything in the Louvre in Paris.”
(1) “Kniesche, Sun Photographer, obituary,” The Baltimore Sun, July 10, 1976.
(2) Williams, Harold A., Bodine: A Legend in His Time (Baltimore: Bodine & Associates, Inc., 1971) p. 29.
(3) Ibid., p. 28.
(4) Mencken, H.L., edited by Fred Hobson, Vincent Fitzpatrick, Bradford Jacobs, Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work: a memoir (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press., 1994) p. 212.
(5) Johnson, Lincoln F., “Weekend by day: Kniesche photo exhibit at historical society,” The Baltimore Sun, June 30, 1978.
(6) “Kniesche, Sun Photographer, obituary,” The Baltimore Sun, July 10, 1976
Sources and Further Reading:
Johnson, Lincoln F., “Weekend by day: Kniesche photo exhibit at historical society,” The Baltimore Sun, June 30, 1978.
“Kniesche, Sun Photographer, obituary,” The Baltimore Sun, July 10, 1976.
Mencken, H.L., edited by Fred Hobson, Vincent Fitzpatrick, Bradford Jacobs, Thirty-five Years of Newspaper Work: a memoir (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press., 1994)
Rasmussen, Fred, “Remember when circus shows took place under canvas Finale: the last time the big top was raised was in Baltimore was May 22, 1956 in Herring Run Park,” The Baltimore Sun, March 22, 1998.
Schoberlein, Robert W., “Maryland’s Shame”: Photojournalism and Mental Health Reform, 1935-1949,” Maryland Historical Magazine, Vol. 98, Spring 2003.
Williams, Harold A., Bodine: A Legend in His Time (Baltimore: Bodine & Associates, Inc., 1971)