Bernard Kobel is a well-known name when it comes to pictures of tattooed people- many of the images published in popular tattoo books today come from Kobel's "collection." Kobel had a thriving mail order business for years selling photographs of tattooed people, sideshow freaks, and other shocking images, complete with catalogs with cryptic descriptions. In the pre-Internet days, this type of material was hard to come by- especially if it was particularly lewd or gruesome.
Bernard Lyle Kobel was born Dec. 19th, 1906 in Louisiana, and died August 1, 1985 in Clearwater, Florida. His father William H. Kobel was a photographer, and by 1942, Bernard was working with his father as a photographer out of their Frankfort, Indiana photography studio, Kobel Photo Service.
By the late 1940s, Bernard had started advertising in magazines selling weird photos by mail order. Things like "German Atrocity Photos: 25 actual photos of German atrocities in France" (Billboard, Nov. 6, 1948) or "photos girls boxing or wrestling (choice) fifty for five" (Travel and Camera, 1953). But by the mid-1950s, Kobel had really hit his stride- "5 x 7 Human Oddities" (Billboard, Feb 25, 1956) and "Highly Tattooed Men, Women" (Billboard, Oct. 29, 1955). He had also left Indiana for Clearwater, Florida, probably moving the studio after his father's retirement (William died in 1963.)
Interestingly, Kobel was also widely published on all kinds of photographic and mechanical topics from the 1930s to the 1950s- in publications including Popular Mechanics, British Journal of Photography, The Professional Photographer, Photographic Hints and Gadgets, Indiana History Bulletin, and Canadian Geographical Journal.
The photos of circus freaks and tattooed men and women are now what Kobel is remembered for. The catalog that you could order photos of tattooed men & women out of was called simply “Highly Tattooed Men & Women” and contained page after page of numbered entries with short descriptions. You told Kobel which numbered photos you wanted to order, and then he printed copies and mailed them to you. Kobel’s methods make current copyright – saavy researchers cringe. He would obtain images of tattooed people, re-photograph them, and then reprint them. This means that the quality on many of the prints was particularly bad- not because Kobel was a lousy photographer, but because photographing a photograph, despite the skill, was always going to turn out something of lesser quality.
The descriptions varied depending on what information Kobel knew about the subject. T-399, for example, has a lengthy description, but no name. “Two photographs in one, showing whole body, front and back of a woman. On her chest are images of six former U.S. Presidents, her back has the Capitol building and high dome tattooed on it.” The woman is performer Lady Viola. Clearly, Kobel didn’t really care to compare photos and update entries in his catalog with more information if he came across it, because Viola is identified in several other Kobel photos- T61 & T62 have the entry “Lady Viola standing, reclining. Tattooed by Fred Graff.”
The trouble with Kobel’s collection, however, is that the photos for sale were not just of performers. His collection also included tattooed men and women who, based on their tattoos, were not performers (people with tattoos that were easy to hide, or in more “private” places.) Who knows how Kobel got his hands on these photos, often of nude or topless women with tattoo breasts, but he reprinted and resold these photos just the same. You have to wonder how many of these women ever realized that a nude photo they took for private eyes made its way into general circulation thanks to Bernard Kobel. I guess, in a way, Kobel was ahead of his time- before the Internet, he was distributing private images for public consumption, the method of delivery was just a little slower. What would he have made of the world today? He’d probably be thrilled.