Robinson Photographic Studio collection
Scope and Contents
The collection provides a broad and generally well-identified pictorial record of Grand Rapids, and the West Michigan area from 1926 through 1989. As detailed below, the images depict people, events, building interiors and exteriors, sports, social customs, industrial developments, and politics. Extensive documentation is provided on the entry of women into the work force outside the home, beginning during WWII, early radio and television facilities, houses, industrial and commercial buildings, sporting events, social clubs, industry and products. More extensive documentation is provided in the series descriptions that follow.
- circa 1900-1988
- Majority of material found within 1935 - 1975
Robert D. Robinson (1882-1964) was born in Lafayette, IN, grew up near Lincoln, NB, and came to Grand Rapids in 1922. He learned photographic portrait work during the World War I years at Camp Sherman, near Chillicothe, Ohio, after working in “wild west” shows and as a movie extra in Hollywood. He worked successively for Fast Photo and the Camera Shop. In 1930 Robinson opened his own photographic studio at 150 E. Fulton Street. He retired in 1945 and sold his interest to his two nephews Shelly and Bud Robinson. Robinson never married.
Henry Shelly Robinson (1901-1981) was born near Lincoln, NB and grew up in Muskegon, MI, later moving to Grand Rapids, MI. In 1921 he went to work in his uncle's photographic studio at Camp Sherman. The next year he returned to Grand Rapids and went to work for The Camera Shop, owned by Walter K. Schmidt. In 1935 the Camera Shop was forced to lay off its work force, a victim of the Great Depression. Borrowing against his life insurance policies, Robinson purchased an interest in his uncle's studio. Robinson retired in 1975. In 1923 Robinson married Ruth Lundquist, they had three children, Eugenia, Edwina, and Shelly Van.
Reuben D, "Bud" Robinson (1899-1978) was born near Lincoln, NB, and grew up in Muskegon, MI, later moving to Grand Rapids, MI. He worked as an electrician, sales person, and mechanical inspector until 1935 when he joined his brother at the Robinson Studio, having briefly worked as a photographer in 1925. Bud did most of the in-studio portrait work. He retired in 1964. Robinson was married to Elois Miller, they had 2 children.
Raymond C. Walen (1927-1982) was born in Grand Rapids and graduated from Catholic Central High School. After military service in the army, Walen became a staff photographer for the Robinson Studio in 1955. During the 1960s he became a partner in the studio, buying it outright in 1975. Walen and his wife Mary Beth had two children.
There were earlier photographers named Robinson on Canal or Monroe Streets, from 1900 to 1920. These were C.B. Robinson, L.B. Robinson, and Leo C. Robinson. It is unknown, at this time, if there were related to the Robinson of the Coll. 125 Robinson Studio, or if any of those earlier works may be represented here.
Robert D. Robinson opened the Robinson Photographic Studio in 1930 at 150 E. Fulton. In 1933 the studio was moved around the corner to 7 Jefferson SE, where it remained until it closed in 1989. The Studio specialized in portraits until 1935 when Robinson's nephew, H. Shelly Robinson, a commercial photographer, joined the studio. The next year Shelly's brother, Reuben D. "Bud" Robinson joined the partnership taking over much of the in-studio portrait work.
One of the Studio's early commercial clients was The Grand Rapids Herald, the local morning newspaper, located less than two blocks away. In 1938 the Herald hired the Studio as their exclusive photographer of regional stories. The resulting work load caused the Studio to hire several more photographers. The relationship lasted until 1950, when the Herald hired several of Robinson's employees as newspaper staff photographers.
In 1945 Robert sold his interest in the business to his two nephews. Following World War II the Studio's commercial work expanded dramatically, as did it portraiture with the addition of skilled hand-colorists, such as Rebecca Heyboer. The studio also began doing extensive school portrait work and wedding photographers during the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1963 Bud retired and sold his interest to Shelly, who in 1975 also retired and sold the Studio to one of the staff photographers, Ray Walen. After Walen's unexpected death, his widow, Mary Beth, sold the Studio in 1983 to another staff photographer Wayne McFarland. In 1986 McFarland tentatively sold the Studio to Jeffrey L. Strayer. The Studio closed in March 1989 and reverted to McFarland, who sold the collection and all attendant rights to the Grand Rapids Public Library in May 1989.
641.1 Linear Feet (984 Boxes)
Language of Materials
The Robinson Studio Collection is the largest archival collection held by the Grand Rapids History & Special Collections. Robinson’s high quality black & white images depict the cultural, educational, social, economic, sports, and geographical development of the Grand Rapids, Michigan area. National figures include those who had roots in Grand Rapids, such as earlier views of President Jerry Ford, or who visited Grand Rapids, such as John F. Kennedy & Richard Nixon, or Frank Lloyd Wright with his wife, Olgivanna at his Meyer May House.
The collection is organized in several series. Upon acquisition in the early 1990’s, it was believed to contain approximately 950,000 negatives, mostly 4x5, taken by the Studio under successive owners. The date range begins around 1935, with some series continuing through 1989, though the bulk of the collection appears to be from the 1930s to the early 1970s. Some 4,000 positive images exist, and photographic prints from the negatives continue to be added by the Department, to facilitate patron use. Additionally, other photographic prints from the Robinson Studio exist in other archival collections in the Department, acquired through separate accessions, and maintained with their originating collections.
The Robinson Collection series have different levels of access and processing. See the series statements in the finding aid for fuller information. The sets in the Commercial Series, for example, are currently accessible alphabetically under the name of the firm or individual hiring the photos. A supplemental index by street name also includes some Commercial series images. Many unique images exist within the Commercial sets, which will be more fully described in the future. Some images from the Commercial series are found on the Library’s website. Others may be found when viewing a publication where the images were used, as these are known, such as the “Western Michigan Catholic” newspaper, or the “Rapid Wheeler”. A database for other series in the Collection is available on the Library’s website. This database contains set level records for the H,R,E,O,CH series (Herald, Reference “E”, “O”, and Grand Rapids Chicks), with data from the mid 1930’s to the 1960’s). This database also acts indirectly as an index to some “Grand Rapids Herald” newspaper articles, when the image was actually used in the newspaper.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Library purchase, May 12, 1989; accession number 1989.022.
The information in this Robinson Photographic Studio General Finding Aid summarizes the overall collection, provides lists of negatives and photos held by negative number, or word description usually at the folder level for photos without negatives. However, due to the large size of this collection, this document is not much more than a box list.
For additional descriptive information and indexing to different series within this vary large collection, a number of additional finding aids were prepared. These finding aids, now consolidated into a single one here, included:
1. Commercial Negatives Series Folder Headings List, 1930-1980's. List of Client Names for the Robinson Commercial Series.
2. Color Negatives Series Folder Headings List, 1951-1988.
An online searchable database to select Robinson Series, including the “H”, “E”, “R”, “O”, and Chicks series. The current version of this database is available on the History Center's webpage. This index can also act as an indirect index to the Grand Rapids Herald, for those stories which actually use the Herald series images taken by the Robinson photographers.
An Address Index to Buildings, formerly called the Geographic Access to Buildings, that includes a list of select Robinson negatives by street name and number. Does not cover all holdings. A photocopy of this print index is available on the History Center's webpage.
- Finding Aid for the Robinson Photographic Studio collection
- Grand Rapids History & Special Collections (GRHC) Staff, 2009; Revisions to finding aid by Jordan Cloud 2019 & 2023
- August 9, 2023
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description