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Robert Yarnall Ritchie
Commercial Modernist

Robert Yarnall Richie, Subjects
By Anne E. Peterson, Curator of Photographs, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University
Robert Yarnall Richie (1908-1984) started his professional career in 1932 with aerial photographs of large East coast estates, which at the time was something of a novelty. From the beginning, he was creative in his approach to business and soon recognized that profit in photography came from repeat business. Richie also decided to diversify, particularly into advertising and industrial clientele. His work soon became in demand, and, by 1938, he was called, "…one of the foremost industrial photographers in the world."1
Richie continued to develop a career in commercial photography and later in motion pictures. He produced over 300 films during his lifetime. In 1941, he purchased a monoplane enabling him to cover projects world-wide. He often worked for Fortune, Life, Scientific American, The American Magazine, Time, National Geographic and other magazines, in addition to illustrating annual reports for Fortune 500 companies including General Motors, U.S. Steel, Phelps Dodge, and Dresser Industries. Richie further branched out into shooting oil production images in such areas as Texas, Louisiana, the Gulf of Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. He expressed a preference for oil work, "There’s drama in steel, but there’s more romance in oil," he said, "oil has so many different angles to it as an industry. Oil really has a story to tell in pictures."2 The diverse list of Richie’s clients is long: Humble Petroleum (Exxon), Corning Glass, Gulf Oil, Armco Steel Corporation, Texas Oil Company (Texaco), Texas & Pacific Railroad, Warren Petroleum, Magnolia Petroleum (Mobil), Atlantic Refining Company (Arco), American Oil Company (Amoco, BP), American Airlines, Halliburton, Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), Boeing Aircraft, Ethyl Corporation, Ford Motor Company, General Electric, Olin Aluminum, American Cyanamid, Allis Chalmers, DuPont, Celanese Corporation, Delta Airlines, Hess Oil, Association of American Railroads (A.A.R.), Eastern Airlines, Bethlehem Steel, Houston Pipeline Company, Imperial Sugar Company, Shell Oil, Kennecott Copper Company, Monsanto Chemical Company, National Biscuit Company, Schlumberger, Sinclair Refining, U.S. Steel, Standard Oil, Sun Oil, IDECO, Texas Chemical Company, Keystone Exploration, American Sugar, Oil Well Supply Company, Texas Gulf Sulfur, Quintana Petroleum, Southern Pacific Railroad, cities, Europe, shipping and offshore oil rigs, among others.
Starting in the early 20th century, the petroleum industry quickly grew. This was the era of expansion of the oil industry and further exploration world-wide. In addition, it was a boom time for such petroleum related services as refineries, the development of ports, pipelines, supply and equipment manufacturers. Richie’s oil photographs in the United States and abroad, ca. 1936-1970, document the development of a major industry important regionally and internationally.
As a pioneer in the field, Richie excelled in making artistic views of corporate industrial subjects similar to such renowned mid-century modernist photographers as Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand. Beyond documentation, Richie often took unusual angle shots creating dramatic photographs of what could have been mundane subjects. His images are masterfully printed, sharp-focused, and precise, emphasizing the linear quality and geometric shapes of, for example, oil refinery pipes and tanks. Life magazine reviewed his work, "Never a news photographer, his keen interest in industry which he believes offers the greatest field for human-interest and dramatic photography, keeps him traveling from one end of the country to another."3 Richie’s subject matter highlights the industrialization and modernization of the American landscape.
Robert Yarnall Richie’s entire collection of some 98,000 negatives, 15,000 photographic prints, over 300 films and manuscripts are in the holdings of the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.
Online digital images in the Richie collection are available at:
  1. "Oil Offers More Romance Than Steel, Says Photographer," The Duncan Eagle, Dec. 14, 1938
  2. Ibid
  3. "Texas Tanks," Life, (January 17, 1938) cover, 7, 28-36.
  4. World Petroleum (January 1937) cover



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