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Ruth Robertson:

An Inventory of Her Collection at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Robertson, Ruth, 1905-1998
Title: Ruth Robertson Papers and Photography Collection
Dates: 1910s-1993
Extent: 39 document boxes, 4 oversize boxes, (21.62 linear feet); 4 oversize folders (osf)
Abstract: The Ruth Robertson Collection documents Robertson's career as a writer and photographer in Illinois, Alaska, and Venezuela with prints, negatives, transparencies, manuscripts, clippings, correspondence, and ephemera.
Call Number: Photography Collection PH-380
Language: English and Spanish
Access:

Open for research; negatives and transparencies are in cold storage and must be requested at least two days in advance of anticipated use.




Acquisition:

Gifts, 1995-1996, 2000-2001

Processed by:

Nicole Davis, 2011

Repository:

The University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Center


Ruth Agnes McCall Robertson was born in Taylorville, Illinois, on 24 May 1905. Her mother was from a newspaper family from Somerset, Kentucky, and her father was a Scottish landscape painter and photographer. Robertson studied at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, although she never finished a degree. She left school in 1939 to work at the Peoria Evening Star, where she was the paper's first female photographer and originated the column "Peoria and her People."

In 1942 Robertson moved to Chicago and began working for Acme Newspictures, Inc. During this time she became the first female photographer allowed to shoot in the infield at Wrigley Field and the first woman to cover football games from the 50-yard line at both Notre Dame and Northwestern universities. In 1944 she opened an Acme bureau in St. Louis and became its first bureau manager. Soon after, she and fellow newspaperman Art Neumann opened their own bureau, Press Syndicate, in Chicago. That same year she was the only woman photographer in the press pool at the Democratic and Republican national conventions held in Chicago. To help integrate into a male-dominated field, she often used the nickname "Robbie."

In 1945 Robertson became a war correspondent through the Press Syndicate and was assigned to the Alaskan-Aleutian area. She was stationed at Ladd Field in Fairbanks, Alaska, where she followed U.S. and Russian movements. She traveled the 2,000-mile Aleutian chain to the headquarters of the 11th Air Force, and she flew with pilots bombing the Japanese Kuril Islands. Her articles and photographs from Alaska were syndicated in newspapers and published in National Geographic .

After the war, Robertson moved to New York and joined the staff of the New York Herald-Tribune doing re-write and production work for the paper and its supplement This Week. All the while she freelanced for National Geographic and Holiday magazines. After being a war correspondent, however, this work seemed too tame, and she looked for something more adventurous. In 1946 she met a group of Venezuelan pilots and subsequently was hired by the Venezuelan airline Linea Aeropostal Venezolana as a publicity photographer.

Robertson's move to Venezuela was a pivotal point in her career as it offered many diverse opportunities. In addition to her work for the airline, she wrote and photographed for newspapers and magazines, including El Farol and Nosotros, and for several oil companies, and she began making documentary films. She traveled throughout Venezuela, Guiana, Colombia, and Brazil for the oil companies documenting their oil fields, drilling operations, and pipelines. Using these photographs, Robertson produced color calendars for Standard Oil, Shell Oil, and Esso. In 1947 she filmed a movie for the Venezuelan Ministry of Development on pearl divers near Margarita Island, and in the early 1950s she filmed one for Shell on their pipeline under Maracaibo Lake.

For the first two years that Robertson lived in Venezuela, she was eager to make an expedition to Angel Falls. The falls had been "discovered" and subsequently named after her friend Jimmy Angel, the bush pilot who had flown over the falls in 1933 and estimated them to be a mile high. Since that time, four expeditions had attempted but failed to measure and prove the great height of the falls. Robertson was determined to make the journey, accurately survey the falls, and photograph them from the ground for the first time. Though the National Geographic Society refused to sponsor her trip given the high failure rate, it agreed to publish Robertson's story if she did succeed. On 23 April 1949 she set out on an expedition that included Oley Olsen, a bush pilot; Alejandro Laime, a Latvian who had scouted the jungles and who hired native guides to help them; Ernest Knee, a filmmaker; Perry Lowrey, an engineer; and Enrique Gómez, their communications man. The team reached the falls on 12 May, and within a few days they had completed their survey. Robertson's story and photographs were published in "Jungle Journey to the World's Highest Waterfall" in the November 1949 issue of National Geographic. Her photographs were subsequently printed in Time, Newsweek, and newspapers around the world. Her accomplishment also allowed her to join the Society of Woman Geographers. Later Robertson would chronicle the trek in her book Churún Merú—The Tallest Angel (Ardmore, Pa.: Whitmore, 1975).

Robertson continued to live and work in Venezuela for most of the 1950s. She joined other journalists in starting the Daily Journal, an English-language newspaper in Caracas. She wrote a column, "Ruth Robertson's Notebook," for the Daily Journal and also worked as a Time-Life correspondent. In 1951, she married Charles Marietta, a University of Texas at Austin graduate and an engineer with the Atlantic Refining Company. Robertson continued to use her maiden name for her professional work.

Due to increasing political turmoil in Venezuela, Robertson and Marietta moved to Mexico in 1958. For the next ten years Robertson worked as Assistant Editor for the American Society of Mexico Bulletin, taking on many duties. Eventually she and her husband moved to Brazoria, Texas. Throughout her later life she traveled extensively around the world, continued writing columns for the Daily Journal, and lectured to various clubs. Robertson died in Rosenberg, Texas, on 17 February 1998.


In addition to biographical information found within the collection, the following sources were used:

Hubbard, Patricia. Ruth Robertson. Accessed September 23, 2011. http://www.ruthrobertson.org

Robertson, Ruth, Churún Merú—The Tallest Angel. Ardmore, Pa.: Whitmore, 1975.


The Ruth Robertson Collection documents Robertson's career as a writer and photographer in Illinois, Alaska, and Venezuela with prints, negatives, transparencies, manuscripts, clippings, correspondence, and ephemera. The archive is organized into six series: I. Career, 1939-1992; II. Personal, 1910s-1978, undated; III. Correspondence, 1939-1991, undated; IV. Clippings, 1939-1992, undated; V. Ephemera, 1937-1991, undated; and VI. Pat Grant materials, 1940s-1993. The majority of materials are in English and a few items are in Spanish.

Series I. Career, the largest series, is divided into two subseries, Photographs and Writings, reflecting the two sides of Robertson's working life. Subseries A. Photographs, 1939-1950s, includes items from her early days working in Peoria and Chicago where she primarily took portraits; her time as a World War II news correspondent documenting military life in Alaska; her several years in Venezuela where she worked for an airline and oil companies and undertook freelance adventures; and from travels in Central and South America where she worked on a variety of projects. There are numerous prints from her time in Alaska (most identified with captions), but her work in Venezuela, including her famous expedition to Angel Falls, makes up the bulk of the subseries. This subseries is organized chronologically by location where Robertson was working, and within these groupings alphabetically by topic. Portraits of Robertson on the job or posing with her camera are found throughout. A small number of nudes, portraits, and unidentified images are at the end of the subseries.

Subseries B. Writings, 1940-1992, undated, includes both published and unpublished works in the form of notes, handwritten drafts, typed drafts, and clippings of published stories. Robertson's writings consisted of book projects, newspaper columns, magazine articles, lectures, diaries, and assorted notes. Her early-career column "Peoria and Her People" profiled community members and was accompanied by portraits taken by Robertson. "Ruth Robertson's Notebook," her column for the Caracas Daily Journal, described the life of American expats living in South America. Other articles chronicled her many adventures and travels or commented on current events and politics. This subseries is organized by format (book projects, columns, assorted stories, and notebooks) and within these groupings titled items are arranged alphabetically and are followed by chronologically-organized untitled items. An index at the end of the finding aid lists written works in the collection.

Series II. Personal includes some biographical information but primarily consists of prints, negatives, and transparencies relating to Robertson's private life which are arranged chronologically. Images include formal and informal portraits of Robertson from her teens through older age, as well as snapshots and informal portraits of her family and friends in Illinois; colleagues, friends, the "Top of the World Club," and Robertson with explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson in Alaska; friends in Venezuela, Mexico, and Texas, including ornithologist William H. Phelps; her husband Charles Marietta and his children; and her travels during her later life to Europe, the Far East, and parts of the U.S.

Series III. Correspondence contains both incoming and outgoing letters relating to her photography, writing career, and personal life. General correspondence is arranged chronologically, followed by folders arranged alphabetically by correspondent. Correspondents include friends, family members, employers, editors, publishers, and other professional contacts. Some of the work-related correspondence includes captions for photographs, expense reports, and contracts. The majority of correspondence is in English although some exchanges are in Spanish. An index at the end of the finding aid lists correspondents in the collection.

Series IV. Clippings reflects Robertson's long career in the newspaper and magazine business. While clippings of her own writings are found in Series I. Career, Subseries B. Writings, the clippings in this series relate to other aspects of her career. Many clippings include photographs by Robertson, though these were often printed uncredited or credited only to her agencies, Acme Newspictures and Press Syndicate. Other clippings include articles about Robertson, especially her Angel Falls expedition, and articles promoting her book and lectures. Robertson also collected columns by colleagues and friends, such as Dorothy Kamen-Kaye, articles about her friends, such as Jimmy Angel, and other clippings on topics of interest to her. Many full issues of newspapers and magazines are also present, primarily copies of the Daily Journal, the English language paper which she helped found in Caracas. This series is arranged chronologically. Most items are in English but some clippings are in Spanish.

Ephemeral items, such as printed materials, scrapbooks, maps, financial documents, and travel documents make up Series V. Primarily concerning Robertson's career, these items include printed materials collected in Alaska; scrapbooks with photographs and clippings of works by and about Robertson; a calendar produced for Esso in Venezuela; maps of Venezuela and the Angel Falls region; expense reports regarding travel for stories and photography excursions; and handbooks from photographers associations and other clubs. A few items relate to Robertson's personal travels and the series also includes two works by others. The series is arranged alphabetically.

The final series, Series VI. Pat Grant Materials, contains a small number of items collected by Robertson's friend Pat "Intrepid Birdwoman" Grant who was a bush pilot in South America in the 1940s and 1950s. These items, which were donated by Grant's extended family, include assorted prints made by Robertson; images of Grant and Robertson, together and individually; clippings about Robertson, Grant, and their mutual friend Jimmy Angel; and correspondence between Robertson and Grant (who signed her letters "Me²") and between Grant and her relatives.

Physical arrangement of items is by format, as follows:

  • Manuscript materials, boxes 1-20
  • Prints, boxes 21-29
  • Negatives, boxes 30-35
  • Transparencies, boxes 36-39
  • Oversize materials, boxes 40-43, osf 1-4


The Ransom Center's Personal Effects Collection has a bone letter opener, 8 woven baskets, a carved gourd bowl, a book-shaped wooden box, a framed U.S. Army certificate, a plaque, a badge, a Press Photographers Association pin, press passes, and a flashlight. The Center's Film Department has a short length of a 16 mm color film titled "Frisco, Alaska."


Correspondents

Fales, Samuel

Grant, Pat

Kamen-Kaye, Dorothy Allers

McCoy, Roxy Ann

Neumann, Arthur E.

Phelps, William H. (William Henry), b. 1875

Stubbins, John R.

Subjects

Alaska Highway

Angel, Jimmy, d. 1956

Ladd Air Force Base (Alaska)

United States. Air Force Airmen

United States. Air Force--Military life

Venezuelans--Pictorial works

Places

Angel Falls (Venezuela)

Brazil

Colombia

Guatemala

Illinois

Mexico

Panama

Venezuela

Venezuela--Aerial views

Document Types

Acetate film

Black-and-white negatives

Cellulose nitrate film

Clippings

Color transparencies

Correspondence

Gelatin silver prints

Manuscripts

Printed ephemera

Scrapbooks

Typescripts