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All Together for the Camera:
A History of the Supreme Court’s Group Photograph


1900-1930s: Spartan Austerity

At the turn of the 20th century, group photographs became less decorative, and soon the familiar, now-ubiquitous velvet backdrop was introduced.


 

The White Court, October 1916
Clinedinst Studio (active 1914-1933)
White Court 1916 Seated from left: Justices William R. Day and Joseph McKenna, Chief Justice Edward D. White, and Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Willis Van Devanter; standing, from left: Justices Louis D. Brandeis, Mahlon Pitney, James C. McReynolds and John H. Clarke

The Bell Studio took the group photographs for nearly 30 years and, after it closed in 1909, the Harris & Ewing and Clinedinst studios shared this role over the next decade. Barnett M. Clinedinst, Jr., had been photographing the Justices individually since the 1890s. By the mid-1910s he was less actively involved in what was renamed the Clinedinst Studio in 1914, and this photograph may have been taken either by his colleague, William H. Towles, or by studio manager Nellie M. Lindsey—which would make it the only group photograph to have been taken by a woman.

The Clinedinst Studio replaced Bell’s dated, Victorian backgrounds with a modern, more austere setting. In 1916, the now-ubiquitous velvet drapes were introduced, and in 1921 they were first used to form a complete screen behind the Justices. Every official group photograph from 1930 to the present has included such drapery.


 

The Taft Court, April 10, 1923
Underwood & Underwood (active 1880-1955)
Taft Court 1921 Seated, from left: Justices Willis Van Devanter and Joseph McKenna, Chief Justice William Howard Taft, and Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and James C. McReynolds; standing, from left: Justices Pierce Butler, Louis D. Brandeis, George Sutherland, and Edward T. Sanford

During the 1910s and 1920s the group photograph was published with increasing frequency, and thus was seen by an increasingly larger audience. As a result, more photographers began requesting that the Justices pose for them, too, and the Court tried to accommodate as many as possible.

On Tuesday, April 10, 1923, the Taft Court visited two studios in downtown Washington, D.C. before hearing oral arguments at noon. Immediately after the Court posed at Underwood & Underwood’s morning sitting, the film was processed and prints were made. This print (above) seen here was then delivered to The Baltimore Sun that afternoon, where it was touched up by the Sun’s art staff before appearing in the newspaper the following day (below).


Page two of The Baltimore Sun, April 11, 1923
Taft Court 1921

 



The Hughes Court, March 1932 [signed]
Harris & Ewing Studio (active 1905-1977)
Hughes Court 1932 Seated, from left: Justices Louis D. Brandeis and Willis Van Devanter, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, and Justices James C. McReynolds and George Sutherland; standing, from left: Justices Owen J. Roberts, Pierce Butler, Harlan Fiske Stone, and Benjamin N. Cardozo

In 1930 the new Chief Justice, Charles Evans Hughes, promptly ended the chaos of trying to accommodate multiple photographers, and during his entire 11-year tenure the Court visited Harris & Ewing’s studio exclusively. Both Harris & Ewing and the Clinedinst Studio had been taking group photographs since 1911, and both combined in-house studios for portraiture with press services. Harris & Ewing was newer and bigger, however, and with an entire news service it could more efficiently distribute photographs to publications across the country.


As a consequence of posing at the same studio, in the same room, in the same arrangement, with the same background—and often even at the same time of day—there is a clear visual consistency among the five photographs taken by Harris & Ewing between 1930-1940.

Click on the arrows in the picture below to see them in sequence.

1 / 5
1930
1930
2 / 5
1932
1932
3 / 5
1937
1937
4 / 5
1939
1939
5 / 5
1940
1940


 

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