Isaac Sievers: The Man Who'd Photograph Anything

21, April 2017

NHPRC logoThe Picturing 1930s St. Louis: Sievers Studio Collection Project is made possible by an NHPRC grant from the National Archives.

Isaac Sievers—Sievers Studio founder and the man behind many of the photographs featured in our Picturing 1930s St. Louis project—was the son of a German immigrant and an Arkansas native. The 1910 census, which lists him working as a salesman in the “picture line” industry in his hometown of Greenville, Mississippi, reveals that he’d already been bitten by the photography bug at just 24 years old.  

Sepia-toned photo of Isaac Sievers and his cameraIsaac Sievers poses with his camera for a promotional postcard, ca. 1920. Missouri History Museum.

By 1916, Sievers had moved to St. Louis, gotten married, and begun working as a photographer. After his camera, his earliest investment was, of course, a pony. He took “pony pictures” of neighborhood children to sell to their adoring parents before moving indoors to launch his first studio with fellow shutterbug Charles Regan. The Regan and Sievers Studio was located at 614 Olive and advertised itself as the Wide Awake Photo Shop. Perhaps the lack of sleep was too difficult for Regan because Sievers was the sole proprietor and president of the renamed Sievers Studio by 1919.

Sievers advertised himself as an all-purpose photographer, and his tagline of “I photograph anything” was clearly true. The collection is full of a wide range of commercial, portrait, and convention photographs, as well as the studio’s specialty—panoramas. Early in his career, Sievers (or Ike, as he was known to many) would travel to Jefferson Barracks to take panoramic photographs of Missouri’s enlisted men as they prepared for service during World War I. He was still taking panoramas nearly 20 years later in 1936 when Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the Soldiers Memorial site downtown. Sievers pulled his young son, Alvin, out of school for the day to photograph the event. As Alvin recalls, Sievers admired Roosevelt, but he also felt strongly that if a large crowd had gathered somewhere, then somebody should be there taking (and later selling) a picture of it.

Black-and-white detail from a panoramic photo of Soldiers Memorial dedicationThis image is a detail from a panoramic photo taken by Isaac Sievers at the 1936 dedication of the Soldiers Memorial site. Click on it to see President Roosevelt speaking at the podium. Missouri History Museum.

By the time our project begins in 1930, the Sievers Studio was located at 1704 Chestnut Street, where it remained until the early 1950s. During the period that we have completed processing, 1931 through 1934, our records indicate that Sievers was the photographer for at least 61 percent of assignments that the studio received. By that time he had two or three other photographers working for him as well, but he was always front and center in his business. He also enjoyed taking “trick” photographs, like panoramas of large groups in which he appears multiple times and even one image where he can be seen playing cards with himself.

Black-and-white photo of Isaac Sievers playing cards with himselfIsaac Sievers playing cards with himself, ca. 1920. Missouri History Museum.

At the time of his death on March 22, 1954, Sievers had spent nearly four decades capturing photographs of moments both small and grand in St. Louis history. Alvin followed in his father’s footsteps and kept the family business running until the 1980s. Most important to all of us, he kept his father’s legacy alive by saving his work—and a slice of St. Louis’s past along with it.

—Amanda Claunch, Archivist, Photographs and Prints

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