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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Charles B. Phelps Jr.

Dates:  1891, 24 May - 1949, 19 January
Born:  US, MI, Detroit
Died:  US, MI, Grosse Point

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Charles B. Phelps Jr.
(Courtesy of Christian Peterson)

Phelps was active in pictorial circles from the mid-1930s through the 1940s and served as a top officer of the Photographic Society of America. He worked in the automobile industry in England and Detroit.
Charles B. Phelps, Jr., was born on May 24, 1891, in Detroit, where he spent most of his life. He graduated from Williams College and served in the U.S. Navy during World War I. After the war, he spent five years as secretary and director of Dodge in England and then returned to Detroit. He spent thirteen years in the automobile industry and then briefly was in the securities business. However, he retired at about age sixty to devote himself completely to photography, initially a childhood hobby.
In 1935, Phelps joined the Detroit Camera Club and began sending his work to salons. His most successful exhibiting season came six years later, when 191 of his prints were accepted at more than sixty-five international salons. These included Cincinnati, Detroit, Los Angeles, Memphis, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York, Ottawa, Rochester, St. Louis, and Toronto. The Smithsonian Institution honored him with a one-person exhibition in 1945. His work appeared in numerous photographic monthlies, such as Camera Craft and thePSA Journal, and Camera ran an illustrated article on him in February 1944. Kodak used one of his pictures during the 1940s in an advertisement for photographic paper. On October 5, 1941, the Detroit Free Press put an image by him of the New York skyline on the front of its Sunday rotogravure picture section, transforming it from a black-and-white image into a rich blue-toned one.
Phelps’s Curves and Angles, which the museum owns a print of, illustrates the influence of modernist subject matter on pictorialism. It captures an architectural detail from the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition, held in Chicago. Except for the inclusion of some lettering and a diminutive human figure, the picture is abstract and disorienting. Phelps’s main interest here, as reflected by the title, was visual design.
Phelps devoted himself to serving the Photographic Society of America (PSA), a national organization, and the camera clubs in his area. Over time, he served as president of the Detroit Camera Club, the Photographic Salon Society of Detroit, and the Scarab Photographic Society. In 1938, he chaired the committee that organized the Detroit salon, in which he frequently exhibited his own work. His service at the PSA was even more impressive. After joining in 1937, he became chairman of the honors committee and treasurer, and in 1943 he was made a fellow (FPSA). He served two terms as president, from 1945 to 1949, and during his tenure the membership of the society doubled and numerous organizational improvements were made. Charles B. Phelps, Jr., died after a brief illness, in Grosse Point, Michigan, on January 19, 1949. 
Christian A. Peterson Pictorial Photography at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Christian A. Peterson: Privately printed, 2012) 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of Christian Peterson and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 1 June 2013. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
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