Originally published in “The New England Journal of Photographic History” #166, 2007
A publication of the Photographic Historical Society of New England
Postcard Photographs by Pete Peterson and Frank Nigro,
Official Statue of Liberty Photographers
The Statue of Liberty, U.S.A.’s #1 symbol of freedom, is also one of the most photographed monuments in the world, and yet, vintage postcard photographs of tourists standing in front of Miss Liberty have virtually disappeared—try and find one on the Web. When collecting photographs for Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives back in 1979, I saw my first Statue of Liberty tourist souvenir photo postcard taken in the late 1920s.
Over the years, more Statue of Liberty tourist postcards have come my way. Who, I wondered, was the photographer? No name was ever acknowledged anywhere on the postcards. What camera set-up had he used and does it still exist? (No, it doesn’t.) What photo-taking and processing methods did he use to produce a print on postcard stock within minutes of taking the photograph? (Long before Polaroids existed!)
I called Liberty Island and spoke with Brad Hill, President of Evelyn Hill, Inc. Today, this family-owned company continues to hold the contract for the food and souvenir concessions on Liberty Island that were first awarded to Brad’s grandfather Sgt. Aaron Hill in 1923, following his retirement from the U.S. Army. Liberty Island, then officially called Bedloe’s Island, was part of the U.S. Army’s Fort Wood. Aaron ran the fort’s PX (post exchange), and for a time he and his family lived on the island. When the Roosevelt Administration closed the fort in 1933, the Statue of Liberty came under the management of the National Parks Service (NPS), and Aaron received permission to continue the souvenir and food business for tourists.
Brad put me in touch with two people who knew about the photography business at Liberty Island: his father, James “Jim” Irvin Hill, now in his 80s, who had succeeded both his father Aaron and mother Evelyn as concessioner; and Frank Nigro, one of the two Statue photographers who was still living (back in 2003)—in Florida.
I spoke with each man on the telephone: only once with Frank Nigro in 2003—he has since died; and many times with Jim Hill. Frank graciously provided me with specific details that add precision to Jim’s more general history of Statue tourist photography. Both fondly remember photographer Pete Peterson, a native of Norway and a U.S. Navy WWI veteran, to whom Jim’s father subcontracted the Liberty Island photography concession in 1923. Jim was just a little boy when Pete began pairing tourists with Miss Liberty. And Jim remembers how Pete did it—only in good weather because Pete did everything outside in the true fashion of a street photographer.
Of course, the trick was to somehow put the tourists in full view of Miss Liberty, an impossible task for a box camera’s focal length in those days, especially since there is only about 50 feet of land on the face (east) side of Miss Liberty where ships pass by going in and out of New York Harbor. Pete Peterson designed and built the unique camera/darkroom unit to accommodate the two-step process for making composite souvenir postcards that portrayed tourists standing with Miss Liberty.
Jim Hill is not sure where Pete Peterson learned photography, but knows that around 1920 he worked the beach in St. Augustine, Florida, with his camera trying to make a business of taking tourist photos. When that didn’t work, he went north and found his tourist opportunity at the Statue of Liberty where Aaron Hill awarded him the photography subconcession which Pete held for over 40 years.
In the 1930s Peterson expanded his business by opening People’s Photo in Hoboken, New Jersey, just north of Jersey City, where today you can take a ferry to Liberty Island. There he sold and processed film, including tourist film for the Holland American cruise ships that docked overnight in Hoboken.
In 1943, after the death of her husband, Evelyn Hill continued the concession business through the tough times of WWII when photography at the Statue, by Pete Peterson or tourists, was verboten in order to prevent anyone from taking photographs of ships going in and out of New York Harbor. Jim related how Coast Guard staff on Liberty Island passenger ferries commandeered all cameras, giving owners a receipt to be used when retrieving their cameras at the end of the return trip. After the war, Jim joined his mother in the business. In 1949 she incorporated it as Evelyn Hill, Inc., becoming President, with Jim as Vice President. Within several years, she made him CEO.
In 1949, Pete hired Frank Nigro to do the day-to-day photography at the Statue and stopped going to the island himself. During WWII Frank had been a ship’s cook, but had always wanted to do photography. In fact, he, like Jim Hill, had family ties to Liberty Island—his godfather had lived and worked there. Teenaged Frank spent his summers on the island, and when he wasn’t working as a busboy, he hung out with Jim Hill.
Jim’s voice saddens when he tells about the National Park Service’s renovation of Liberty Island in the 1960s. The NPS wasn’t impressed with Pete Peterson’s and Frank Nigro’s street-photographer work set-up. In fact, they insisted that there was no need for commercial photography on Liberty Island, even though Jim explained that people who visited the Statue wanted their pictures taken with her—including those with a camera dangling around their necks. Indeed, many came back year after year to have the traditional photo taken with Miss Liberty. But NPS was not interested and would not even meet with Jim to discuss how to make photography fit into their development plans. And so in 1963, Evelyn Hill, Inc. was forced to end its contract with photographer Pete Peterson, and Frank Nigro was out of a job. Jim helped Frank buy a pizza parlor in Brooklyn, New York—he was like family.
Today Evelyn Hill, Inc., under Brad Hill’s leadership, continues as the sole concessioner on Liberty Island, overseeing the gift shop, sale of food, and now digital photography. After some 40 years without professional photography on the island, Brad received permission from the NPS in 2003 to bring photography back—this time digital. Now three photographers position tourists on the face (east) side of the Statue, and with Nikon digital cameras kneel down and capture tourists in full view of Miss Liberty. Dye-sublimated 5”x7” and 8”x10”color photographs—no more photo postcards—are available from an on-site printer while you wait. “And,” says Brad, “business is good.”
Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives’ collections hold examples of Pete Peterson’s work from the 1920s and 30s, and Frank Nigro’s from 1949 to 1963. Even with no mention of their names on the postcards, we now know, with Jim Hill’s help, that these two men were the only professional photographers at the Statue of Liberty during those years. Project SAVE’s Statue of Liberty images include immigrants, often with their American-born children. Many had arrived at Ellis Island in steerage class, passing by Miss Liberty in the bowels of the ship as it steamed into New York Harbor, thus missing her welcome.
Now, as American citizens, they return to receive her blessing and give thanks.
How the Camera Worked
Frank Nigro gave a basic description of Pete Peterson’s camera creation: the outside box was oak wood, and bees wax was used to protect the wood from the photo-chemical baths—Pete and Frank made their own chemicals. The camera itself was made of Bakelite and for refocusing, was moved back and forth on a steel track.
Jim Hill was fascinated with photography from the time he was a little boy growing up on Bedloe’s Island, watching Peter Peterson take photos of tourists with Miss Liberty. From years of careful observation, he recently observed how Pete, and later Frank Nigro, actually worked the unique camera to take and develop “instant” tourist photos with Miss Liberty. Jim said Pete formulated his process and technique by trial and error, and that both men were most certainly ambidextrous.
Positioned with his camera outfit on the west side of the Statue, at her back, the photographer posed tourists 10 feet away from his camera lens in front of a wall and bushes. With one hand in the camera sleeve, he took a piece of 122 Kodak paper-negative film (3 ¼” x 5 ½”) from his “paper” box, positioned it behind the camera lens, and snapped the image of the tourist(s). Then, without receiving an order number or making a payment, the tourist(s) went off to look at the Statue.
Working fast and “blind,” the photographer developed the tourist negative by putting it through three chemical baths—the developer, stop bath, and hypo. In hot weather he kept the baths at “room temperature” by adding ice cubes. He removed the developed negative from the camera box, rinsed it with water, and with scissors he trimmed it, removing anyone who inadvertently had walked through the picture, so that only the tourist(s) and the wall—in later years, the lifesaver ring—remained.
Refocusing the lens, he placed the cutout tourist negative next to his master negative of Miss Liberty at a focal length of about 10 inches in front of the same lens that had just taken the tourist photo.
Then his hand went back in the camera box to place paper-negative postcard stock behind the lens, and using the cable release with his other hand, snapped the composite. He put the paper-negative postcard stock through the same chemical baths and rinse. Et voila! There you have it! Two negatives do literally make a positive—not high quality and a bit contrasty, but certainly acceptable considering the technology of the time and the speed of product delivery. In true street-photographer style, about 40 minutes after starting, the composite positive photo postcard was dried (having been placed between two blotters), in a folder or not (I have never seen a folder), and ready for the customer to pick up and pay for after visiting Miss Liberty.
Tourists most likely considered their photo postcards something akin to magic. Jim Hill says that in the 1950s the price for a Statue of Liberty souvenir photo postcard was 75 cents (equivalent to $8.30 in 2021) and with inflation, increased to $1.50 (2021 value of $16.75), by the time photography at Liberty Island ended in 1963. In the 1950s and 60s these prices were dear but did not deter even the working-class visitors, for whom freedom was just as dear, from having their pictures taken with Miss Liberty. A treasure, indeed.
Many thanks to Brad Hill, president of Evelyn Hill, Inc., for providing information about his family’s business activities on Liberty Island, and for referring the author not only to his father James Irvin Hill, but also to photographer Frank Nigro, who provided details about the workings of the camera. Brad’s father, who so willingly shared his memories of the Statue of Liberty photographers, took pen in hand to sketch Pete Peterson’s camera set-up and explained in detail how the photographs were taken and processed. Jim also shared his Statue of Liberty family photographs with the author and is working with her to preserve other collections of Pete Peterson’s and Frank Nigro’s Statue of Liberty photographs. Thanks also to PHSNE member Gary Samson who provided insight about street-photography techniques and methods.
About the Statue
Liberty is actually an immigrant herself. She was born in France—the idea conceived by French legal scholar Edouard René Lefebvre, who commissioned sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi to create the statue in hopes of having it ready to commemorate the centennial of American Independence in 1876. However, it wasn’t until 1886 that the citizens of France, in an act of international friendship, were able to give Miss Liberty to the people of the United States. She may be reached at www.statueofliberty.org
About the Author
Ruth Thomasian is founder of Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives, Inc. in Watertown, Massachusetts. She is a PHSNE board member and past president, as well as co-editor of this Journal. Recently she visited the Statue with friends from the Republic of Armenia who took her picture with Miss Liberty using a cell-phone camera. She may be reached at email@example.com and 617-923-4542.
Tina Hazarian 10-79
Makrouhi and Mardiros Taraian, immigrants to the United States from genocide-torn Historic Armenia in the Ottoman Empire, visited Miss Liberty, 1928—probably on a Sunday as they appear in their Sunday best—they lived in The Bronx, New York.
Voila! There you have it. Even with the paste-up line and abrupt change of scenery, unsuspecting eyes hardly notice that the camera really hadn’t captured the tourists in full view of our national monument; photo by Pete Peterson.
Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives, courtesy of Tina Hazarian
Jim Hill 8-07
Pete Peterson, early 1960s; photo by Frank Nigro
Courtesy of James Irvin Hill
Jim Hill 2-07
Evelyn Hill, president of Evelyn Hill, Inc. with son Jim, who later became president; photo by Frank Nigro
Courtesy of James Irvin Hill
Lovey Avedisian 13-99
Siroon “Lovey” Mooshakian Avedisian, who was born in the United States, and her husband Haig, born in Kharpert, Historic Armenia, pose with their daughters, l-r, Joyce and Irene. Message on back dates their visit as October 13 ; photo by Frank Nigro, who began using the lifesaver as a way to document the place, and later the date.
Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives, courtesy of Lovey Mooshakian Avedisian
Haroutune Hagopian, his son-in-law Zadig Fantazian, and their friend Hovannes Markarian, all immigrants from Historic Armenia in the Ottoman Empire, c. 1936; photo by Pete Peterson.
Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives, courtesy of Ojen Fantazian
Jim Hill 7-07
Jim Hill and sons Brad and Chris; photo by Frank Nigro
Courtesy of James Irvin Hill