After fifteen years of struggle, Hal’s photography business had finally established itself by the late 1950s, and he was getting enough business from ad agencies to start looking for a bigger studio. He found it at 243 Vallejo Street, in a 7,500 square-foot former industrial building within easy walking distance from Campbell-Ewald, BBD&O, and his other regular clients. Hal’s dear friend Jerry Flax helped with the financing and Hal soon had a large, bright, empty, building of his own. He moved in at the end of 1959.
Since the bulk of his business at the time was food photography, a large kitchen was constructed in the center of the space. Around it were added three huge darkrooms, one for processing film, one for printing 8x10in negatives, and another for medium-format printing. It was the première advertising photo studio of its day.
A loft area was left over from the previous owner. This was adapted to serve as a prop storage space to house plates, serving dishes, and exotic glassware of all shapes and sizes. There was, Hal said, over $10,000 worth of glasses alone up there.
Over a few years, the studio evolved into a sort of museum, gallery, saloon, and working space. Hal was accumulating a very large number of awards at this time and rather than frame them, he just stapled them to the walls, one next to the other, sort of like wallpaper. When the walls were covered, the awards were stapled to the ceiling. My world, and welcome to it!
On the west wall were displayed a wide range of found objects, excellent paintings, and a rather large portion of a plum tree. An original Atget photograph of a Parisian prostitute was in there, along with a railroad crossing sign, and an assemblage of other objects. While this may sound chaotic, the effect was entirely otherwise — balanced, textured, charming, complete.
Below this display was a 10-foot antique table surrounded by old chairs and an 8 foot table liberated from the sailor’s union hall before it was torn down to make way for the Golden Gateway. In those chairs, starting around 4pm on weekday afternoons, you would often find a happy congregation of San Francisco’s creative community — Ansel Adams was a frequent guest, as was William Garnett, Gene Tepper, Tony Smith, Jack Keeler, Maggie Waldron, Bruce Butte, Lowell Herrero, Bill Hyde, Imogen Cunningham, Al Weber, and many more. Drinks were served generously, conversation flowed apace, and the survivors staggered home or off to New Joe’s for dinner around six or seven. The most notorious excuse was “waiting for the traffic to die down.”
But until 4pm, the place was all business. The careful compositions for which Hal became famous took days to assemble. If the prop loft didn’t have what was needed for a layout, people went shopping for props — at Gumps, at antique stores the once existed on McAllister Street, anywhere. These props were carefully arranged, sometimes in many variations, and test photos made and delivered to the client.
When the time came to make the photograph, it was usually done with a huge 11 X 14 inch Deardorff camera using an 8 X 10 inch reducing back, all mounted on a 10-foot stand. These photo sessions were tremendously intense events. Everybody present was required to stand perfectly still during exposures measured in minutes, not seconds — even air currents could create movement of elements of the photo that ruined the exposure.
The studio was generally a happy and creative place, despite Hal’s often volcanic temper. He was as serious about making a photograph promoting a bottle of brandy as Ansel Adams was about photographing a landscape — both were worthy of careful construction, composition, illumination, and precision. Hal’s advertising work was intended to be artwork with commercial overtones, and he put as much into a photograph for an ad as any landscape photographer, maybe more.
The United States Post Office raised the postage rates for magazines in the early 1970s, a decision that helped kill the great weekly and monthly periodicals of the post-war era. Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, and many others quickly went out of business as a result. Those magazines were the venue for the ads that Hal illustrated. Ad agencies suddenly found themselves without clients or clients without budgets. The demand for high-end photography evaporated. That coupled with the year Hal took photographing the Mineral Book for Arthur Court as pieces of sculpture while turning away other assignments helped turn the key one last time in the lock.
Hal closed 243 Vallejo Street in 1974. The big cameras were given away because there was no market for them — most other advertising photography studios were closing, too, and photo gear was suddenly worthless. Most of his negatives were thrown into 55-gallon drums and sent to a recycler for their silver content. All the awards were pulled off the walls and most thrown away into the dumpster out front. As were most of his tear sheets and prints.
But there was one last, huge, legendary party before the door was locked. The whole community of creative people in San Francisco showed up for a last drink and for a wake for a place that had been very important to a lot of people for fifteen years. Cabbies said that every cab in town was coming or going from 243 Vallejo that night. Then, sometime after midnight, the last drunk was pushed out the door and an era ended.