B. Haig Artin in his studio (Photo courtesy of the USC Shoah Foundation)

Obituary: B. Artin Haig, Genocide Survivor, FDR Photographer


MILWAUKEE, Wis. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) — A 104-year-old Milwaukee photographer who survived the Armenian genocide, shot photos of President Franklin Roosevelt and saw Babe Ruth play at Yankee Stadium has died.

Artin Haig died Monday, March 4, of natural causes at St. John’s on the Lake where he lived.

In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in December, Haig talked about the incredible things he did and witnessed in his eventful life. That included watching his favorite players Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth while he lived in New York.

“I used to go to baseball games and I used to sit on the third base side because I liked to see them steal home,” Haig said.

B. Artin Haig (photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Independent)

Haig would have turned 105 in August.

In an earlier interview with the paper, he had said, “I used to go to baseball games and I used to sit on the third base side because I liked to see them steal home.”

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“Babe Ruth was my favorite player and Lou Gehrig second. Babe Ruth was not only friendly, he was outgoing,” said Haig. “Lou Gehrig was a very good player. He was actually a better player than Babe Ruth though Babe Ruth had a few more home runs.”

That’s true — Babe Ruth hit 714 homers and Gehrig, whose career was cut short by the illness that now carries his name, hit 493.

Born Haig Artin Kojababian in Armenia in 1914, less than a week after the start of World War I, he was orphaned at the age of 4 or 5. He saw his mother dragged away by Turkish soldiers; his father, a math professor, disappeared. His family was wealthy and among the ruling class in their Armenian village of Hadjin.

He fled Armenia and lived with an uncle in Constantinople, then moved to Marseilles, France, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, before immigrating to New York when he was around 10 years old. There, a distant cousin owned a photography studio in Times Square. Haig wanted to photograph pretty girls and he asked his cousin, who took pictures for theater producer Flo Ziegfeld, what he needed to do to become a professional photographer.

“I learned photography from him. He made me study chemistry so I knew how to mix chemicals. I would add chemicals for more contrast,” said Haig.

While he was in high school, the always nattily dressed Haig worked at a grocery store for an uncle who operated a large Oriental rug business and as a messenger on Wall Street. He remembers the 1929 Wall Street crash, which led to the Great Depression. “But it didn’t affect me. We still worked, but tips were not as good.”

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His skills as a photographer improved and eventually photography would become his life’s work.

Haig moved to Washington, DC, and worked for Underwood & Underwood, a news photography company that had studios at hotels where brides would come to get their photos taken. At that time, Haig recalled, brides would arrange for photos to be taken by two or three photographers free of charge before choosing their favorite to hire.

He also found his own bride at Underwood & Underwood — his wife, Mabel, who was known as Caroline, was a receptionist at the firm. They were married for more than four decades before she died in 1977 of lung cancer.

Though he became known for his bridal photography, Haig was also Underwood & Underwood’s White House photographer, and he snapped photos of the most famous Washington resident.

Haig and two assistants always traveled to the White House early to set up lights and cameras before President Franklin Roosevelt arrived. Haig got only seven to eight minutes to take as many pictures as he could — usually around a dozen shots — before the busy Roosevelt needed to be somewhere else.

“I would talk to him and when I got a good expression I snapped the picture,” said Haig.

One time, Roosevelt’s French cuffs were scrunched up and Haig helped the president smooth them out.

“The next time I saw him he didn’t remember my name but he said, ‘Are you going to fix my cuffs?’ I said, ‘Yes sir, Mr. President,’ ” Haig said. “I was never shy to speak freely. I would say ‘Mr. President, when I’m taking the pictures, I’m the boss.'”

“If he didn’t like what the person was wearing, he would make them change,” said his daughter, Dolores Mishelow. “He thought if it wasn’t flattering, they wouldn’t like it. They never complained.”

He moved from Washington, D.C., to Dallas to work for Gittings, a prominent portrait studio at a time when portrait photography was big. Haig moved to Milwaukee in 1954 and bought a photography studio next to Chapman’s Department Store across from the Pfister Hotel on Wisconsin Avenue.

He later opened up B. Artin Haig Photography studios elsewhere in the Milwaukee area.

At the age of 93 he traveled back to his homeland with his daughters, but his village had been destroyed by the Turks during the Armenian genocide.

“There wasn’t much that he recognized,” said Mishelow. “He had never been back since he escaped at night with the help of the Kurdish people. I’m sure it was very emotional for him. I think it was exciting for him to see.”

He continued taking photos into his 90s, by then using Hasselblad cameras. As his eyesight weakened, he used an assistant and had someone carry his camera equipment. He tried digital photography, but Haig never warmed up to it. To Haig, film remained the best medium.

“Photography to me is as creative as any painting can be. I feel we can make a better picture than any painter can make it,” said Haig.

Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. John’s on the Lake chapel, 1840 N. Prospect Ave., Milwaukee.

He is survived by four daughters, Caroline Case, Dolores Mishelow, Raquel Gutherie and Artyn Gardner, nine grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren and one great-great-granddaughter.

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