Sunday, June 29, 2003

Wright brothers memorabilia enriches photographer's life

Clifton resident has spent years amassing historical treasures

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Former Enquirer art critic Owen Findsen and photographer Walt Burton (right) at the Hyde Park Starbucks.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
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Walt Burton's voice booms across the Hyde Park Starbucks: "Get everything wet off the table. I have $650,000 worth of photos here."

Heads turn.

Burton, a sight himself in a tropical print shirt, his silver hair pulled into a ponytail, whips out a 1903 print of Orville and Wilbur Wright's first flight. Value: $50,000. Next: a 1904 picture that Orville shot of Wilbur flying at Simms Field near Dayton. Value: $75,000. Then a shot of the brothers tinkering with a plane engine. Value: $20,000.

Burton, a 67-year-old Clifton photographer, photo collector and dealer, specializes in Wright memorabilia. Since 1988 he has been amassing the multimillion-dollar collection so diligently that it fills 12 fireproof cabinets weighing 1,800 pounds each.

The best can be seen in The Wright Brothers Legacy (Abrams; $37.50), a new coffee-table book by Burton and retired Enquirer art critic Owen Findsen.

"It's some of Owen's best work," Burton says. "And I've known his work since we were at Withrow High School together. We even shared a $40-a-month apartment in Mount Adams once."

Section front page

Look for our special 12-page section in Sunday's Enquirer, celebrating the centennial of the Wright Brothers' first flight. It features stories about Orville and Wilbur's lives before and after their famous feat, a tour of Dayton's Wright sites, a calendar of events, a full-color graphic detailing the history of flight and more.

Inventing Flight Celebration calendar

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Burton collected, assembled and arranged the material and turned it over to Findsen with notes. "He gave it such an exciting flavor," says Burton. "He brought a humanity to the Wright brothers by finding anecdotes and tidbits no one knew or had long forgotten," Burton says.

People who take the time to read it, once they finish gawking at the 250 illustrations, will find Findsen tells his tale in a chatty, easy-going style. A remarkable feat, considering that when Findsen started, he was lying in a hospital bed in his living room, recovering from surgery.

"I wrote the book the way the Enquirer taught me to write," Findsen says. "Tell the story people want to hear and then shut up."

Chasing leads

The obscure material he found came from backtracking indexes and references listed in books about the brothers, their letters, even the Internet. "I found one book in the Mercantile Library that Orville absolutely hated," Findsen says. "He was intensely private, but in 1918 a guy stayed with him a year and wrote a terrible book that Orville wanted suppressed. I found a lot of stuff in there."

That's also where he discovered that during the last 10 years of his life, Orville (who died in 1948, 36 years after Wilbur) wandered the neighborhood looking for houses with lights on. "When he found one, he'd knock on the door and ask neighbors to talk," says Findsen. "He had absolutely no friends."

It also helped that Findsen had incredible photos to wrap his words around: The Wright family and friends around the dining room table; Wilbur lying flat in the cockpit on his first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C.; early experiments with gliders; the world's first aerial photograph (1910), which the Dayton newspaper refused to print because there were no people in the view of the Simms Field hangar.

There's even a photo of the first woman to fly. It shows Wilbur at the controls with Mrs. Hart Berg - the wife of the Wright brothers' European representative. She has a cord tied around her legs to keep her skirts in place. "The hobbled skirt" writes Findsen, "became the latest fashion for women who wanted to appear as if they, too, had flown."

For Burton, a former gallery owner, former house photographer at Playhouse in the Park and former Playboy photographer, collecting is a mixture of determination, savvy and luck. "I used to go to paper and photo shows, sometimes antique shows, wearing a badge that said 'Wright Brothers wanted.' I found a lot of stuff that way, and also got a lot of leads to other people who had something or knew somebody who had something."

Like the guy in Pittsburgh responsible for most of the photographs in Chapter 13, "The Kitty Hawk Flyer in Exile." "Orville had tried to donate it (the Flyer) to the Smithsonian, but it refused, claiming its director had been the first to fly in 1903," explains Burton. "Actually, he dumped into the Potomac, but the Smithsonian clung to the story. So Orville got p.o.'d and gave it to a museum in England.

"It wasn't until 1948 that the Smithsonian apologized and brought it back. Anyway, I heard about a guy in Pittsburgh who had photos of the homecoming, so I drove up. He had 13. I traded him a box full of nudes from my Playboy days. Now that was a bargain."

Still, Burton came by most of the photos by a more conventional route: He bought them. "I started the collection when I bought the collection of William Preston Mayfield (the Wrights' personal photographer) and had to take three years to pay it off. Mayfield started shooting for Dayton papers when he was 14, but he also shot everything the Wrights did." They were fanatics about documenting everything in photos to prove they did it."

Life is fun

Today, the Mayfield collection is enhanced by 400 vintage postcards, 59 books, 100 vintage tear sheets, 300 or so photos and a 2-foot-high stack of research photocopied from an assortment of sources. "It's worth a couple of million, I know that, but exact dollar figures would be difficult," says Burton. "But right now I'm not thinking about value as much as I am about how much fun it's been."

"You know, if I had known life was going to be this great at the near side of 70, I wouldn't have waited so long to get here."

Sounds like the fun's going to continue. Abrams has contracted for two more books. One will be a coffee-table book on Burton's collection of vintage postcards; the other will be a coffee-table book based on his collection of tree photos.

"I have more than 6,000 by every major photographer around the world, including 25 by Ansel Adams."

Burton isn't sure when he'll start work on the books. Right now, he's savoring a Legacy high. "That first copy came in the mail from Abrams and, I'm not kidding, it took me three days to come down."

An exhibit of originals from Walt Burton's Wright brothers collection hangs at the Dayton Art Institute through Sept. 21. For more information, visit

Burton and Findsen have two book signings:

• 7 p.m. July 9, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Madison and Edwards roads, Norwood, 396-8960

• 7 p.m. July 22, Books & Co., 350 E. Stroop Road, Kettering. (800) 777-4881.


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