There was a time when Harris & Ewing was the nation’s largest photo agency. Based on F Street in downtown Washington, D.C. (the agency’s main studio building still stands and is on the National Register of Historic Places), the agency expanded into multiple studios, had up to 120 employees and used a legion of freelance photographers. Many of those photographers turned their lenses on the airplanes and pilots who passed through the nation’s capital, providing a unique snapshot of the golden age of aviation.
George W. Harris was born in Wales, emigrated to the United States in 1881 and had worked in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas before finding work as a photographer in San Francisco. There he met Martha Ewing, who had her own studio. The two became partners. Supposedly President Theodore Roosevelt himself talked Harris into relocating to Washington, which he did in 1905. He became the White House photographer and oversaw the steadily increasing business of Harris & Ewing. Harris bought Ewing out in 1915 and he sold the business 30 years later. Before he died in 1964, Harris donated some 70,000 of the agency’s photographs to the Library of Congress.
Many of those images depict the aviation comings and goings in Washington. They include some famous pilots—Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh—as well as politicians, socialites and more obscure figures whose names are lost to history, often photographed standing somewhat stiffly in front of an airplane. The menagerie of aircraft captured by the agency’s photographers run the gamut from navy flying boats to the tiny Verville-Sperry M-1 Messenger that Lawrence Sperry used to land at the U.S. Capitol. Presidents, cabinet officials, military figures make their appearances, as do inventors eager to promote their latest contributions to the science of aviation.
This was a time when flight had captured the public imagination—and Harris & Ewing photographers were on hand to capture aviation history with their cameras.