A Thousand Words? This Stash Is Worth a Trillion
By DAN BARRY
It began with Moe. Just Moe.
He spent his days clipping photographs and drawings of everything and
anything, using scissors large enough to pass as shears. He smoked
cigarettes, played the ponies, used a pay phone for all business, and
heated his coffee with a device that dangled from the ceiling light. He
had his own way, Moe did.
Long ago, before the Internet, Moe ran a company called Reference
Pictures. Say you were an illustrator trying to conjure a unicorn, or
an art director trying to envision the Grand Canyon for some
advertising pitch. You'd call up Moe, and soon a messenger would appear
with an envelope of inspiration: images of unicorns, images of canyons,
culled from assorted periodicals by Moe and his mighty shears.
Moe died in the early 1980's, leaving to posterity his many pictures,
his rotary pay phone, and a long wooden table bearing telltale signs of
a life of distraction, the burn marks of forgotten cigarettes.
Imagine the poor executor of Moe's estate. Who in the world would want
so many boxes of pictures, all categorized according to a system known
only to a dead man?
Arnold Blumberg, it turned out. One of Moe's old clients, he saw an
auction notice and could not abide the thought of all those images lost
to the ages. He bid and won the treasure trove of Moe.
"He had it in his mind that he had to have all these pictures," said
Mr. Blumberg's wife, Doris. "It was completely emotional."
By this point in their long married life, the Blumbergs of Queens had
Arnold was an artist and an art director for a large advertising firm.
Doris was a jewelry designer and a saleswoman. Their children, Hilary
and Denise, were studying to become doctors, which meant endless
But Mr. Blumberg had bid with his heart, and now the Blumbergs owned
whatever was behind a certain door in the Flatiron district.
"Dust," he recalled.
And beneath that dust, boxes and boxes and boxes of photographs,
spilling from above, overflowing from below.
"Doris," Mr. Blumberg said, "it's yours."
Mrs. Blumberg spent a few months trying to break the Moe code of what
was where and why; she found herself thinking, "Now where would he put
this?" She bought new boxes, began replenishing the files with images
that she cut from periodicals herself, and focused on developing a
FOR example, she said, Moe kept one box called, simply, Dogs. If a
client called for images of a dachshund, he would flip through dog
pictures with wet thumb until he found dachshunds. Now, under the Doris
system, which includes 18 boxes of dog files, you look up dachshunds -
and they're right there.
Soon Reference Pictures was again serving the needs of artists,
designers, fashion directors and anyone else who wanted visual
kick-starts to enhance their ideas. Its files grew in number and in
girth, as the Blumbergs and some employees snipped and filed pictures
"You could never tell what somebody would ask for," Mrs. Blumberg said,
recalling the time someone requested an image of an elephant on water
The Reference Pictures office has six rooms of shelves and file
cabinets, all groaning under the weight of photographs - and each one,
it seems, holding a special place in Mrs. Blumberg's heart.
"There's just everything," she said, sitting in front of boxes labeled
Circus (Clowns: B&W, Bozo the Clown, Full and Half-Fig Clowns, Hobo
Clown - Emmett Kelly) and Auto (Parts: Freshener, Fuel Injector, Gas
Caps, Gas Cans, Hood Ornaments, Horns). "This place is filled with
Dare to try and stump Mrs. Blumberg, and you lose. Ask for photos of
Tarzan, and you have your choice of Elmo Lincoln, Johnny Weissmuller,
Buster Crabbe, Lex Barker and anyone else who ever donned the
loincloth. Ask for Veronica Lake, and there she is, peeking from behind
those golden bangs. Ask for 1950's automobiles, and you're told to be
more specific. The Nash? The Willys station wagon? The Thunderbird?
"If you look at the Internet, you don't see this," Mr. Blumberg said,
rubbing a photograph of a 1957 Oldsmobile Golden Rocket 88 Holiday
Coupe. "You don't hold it in your hand."
The Internet, he said, has changed how we experience the visual. Where
art directors once lingered at Reference Pictures, studying the
elongated body of a dachshund, they now sit at their desks and simply
Google a dachshund. But would the Internet, say, show a dachshund from
the front, back, sideways, trotting in a park - and encased in a hot
That is but one example of why the Blumbergs see their collection as an
invaluable reference library: millions of tactile images, all
cataloged, giving specific detail to the past and offering creative
energy for the future.
But the couple say that it is time to try something else: retirement,
for example. Who, then, will buy and preserve the millions of images
assembled by Doris, Arnold and long-gone Moe?
"We can't keep being altruistic," Mr. Blumberg said.
"It's for younger people," Mrs. Blumberg started.
"To take it to the next step," Mr. Blumberg finished.
The Blumbergs fell silent for a moment in the midst of their
collection, one that includes six files for Radio (Announcers,
Transmitters, Walky-Talkies), three for Lamps (Assorted, Aladdin,
Candles) and nine for intangible Love.