Russell Froelich: Behind the Lens

7, March 2014
Photographer Russell FroelichIn this undated photo, photographer Russell Froelich tests a synchronized handheld flash device that he invented and patented for speed photography. Missouri History Museum.

The photo at left is of Russell Froelich, a photographer who worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and the St. Louis Star in the first half of the twentieth century. At first glance, I thought this image was an old-time version of a selfie. More likely it was not taken in front of a mirror but rather by another photographer. While we have more than 600 of his photos—depicting street scenes, Veiled Prophet parades, disasters, cave interiors, and various aircraft—in our collection, I find this one to be especially interesting, as it shows the man behind this huge collection. We always see the photographer’s subject, but rarely do we get a glimpse of the artist and his process.

A native of Ohio, Froelich was born in 1890 and came to St. Louis in his late teens. In his twenties, he began both designing and helping to build airplanes with early local flyers, such as Tom Benoist of the Benoist Aircraft Company. Not only did Froelich take part in aircraft innovation, he also began to make his mark in documenting early planes and pilots through photography.

Bi-plane flying under Eads Bridge, ca 1930sBi-plane flying under the Eads Bridge. Photo by Russell Froelich, ca. 1930s.

American entry into WWI led Froelich to put his talents and skills to wartime use. He began taking aerial photographs from wing-mounted cameras that he improvised to fit given situations and flight conditions, helping the U.S. Army Signal Corps develop terrain maps of Europe. (His obituary in the Post-Dispatch in 1958 even credits him with using one of these improvised cameras to take the first aerial photograph showing both the pilot in an open cockpit and a city below.) After the war, Froelich returned to taking photos of life in and around St. Louis. He continued to explore his interest in aerial photography and also worked on innovations in early color photographic techniques.

Photo of cat that appears to be smiling, 1922This photo from 1922 is one of Froelich's most notable images. Missouri History Museum.

One final interesting note about Russell Froelich. In his Globe-Democrat obituary, it states, “One of Mr. Froelich’s most famous pictures was of ‘Midge,’ the ‘laughing cat,’ taken in 1922 when he was with the Star.” The man was a pioneer of both early aviation and aerial photography, took thousands of lasting images of the St. Louis region for the city’s newspaper outlets, was an innovator of color photography, and his most memorable photo is of a laughing cat. Between the cat and the pseudo-selfie, Russell Froelich would be perfect for modern web culture.

For more photos from the Russell Froelich Collection, you can search our online collections or visit the Museum's Flickr page.

—Matt Ringelstetter, Digital Media Content Developer