When our friend Bette S. Garber past on November 13, 2008, at the age of 65, the New York Times described her as “The Henri Cartier-Bresson of big-rig trucking” in her obituary. While many in our industry may not know who Cartier-Bresson was, the similarities between Henri and Bette run deep. With a humanistic, surreal approach to his art form, Cartier-Bresson was a pioneer in photojournalism and is considered to be one of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century.
Working as a fashion copyrighter for a Chicago based firm in the 1970s, Bette Garber began to take notice of the trucks that criss-crossed the highways of the United States. She eventually became fascinated with these “modern day cowboys” who had a lifestyle and language all their own. An industry that was overlooked and under marginalized, Bette saw the beauty of the American Big Rig and the men and women who drove these amazing machines. With that in mind, she began photographing the trucks and the people who kept America moving, not knowing at the time, she would become the foremost trucking photographer of her day.
The 1970s were an interesting time in the trucking industry. With the popularity of the CB radio, movies like Smokey and the Bandit, Convoy, and television shows like Movin’ On and BJ and the Bear brought trucking into the public eye. But, for the most part, it was a man’s world. While at a truck show and rodeo in York, Pennsylvania in 1976, Bette met a future friend in D “Chickadee” Atkinson Wogaman. As D explained to us, “I won the women’s division of the truck rodeo and was third place in the men’s division for backing into a loading dock. I received a prize. No trophy, but rather a brown garment bag!” Continuing to tell the story, she said, “When I was in the office to pick my prize up, a woman approached me, asking to take photos for the record. Guess who that woman was?” She added, “While the garment bag was a great prize, that chance meeting ended up giving me the real prize, a lifelong friendship with Bette.”
As D and Bette’s friendship grew, she continued telling us some great stories of their adventures. “I went with Bette to a lot of truck shows and events, including the making of Smokey and the Bandit II at the Atlanta Motor Speedway where we were allowed in the thick of it. In the film, if you look close, Bette’s face fills the screen as she’s photographing for about one to two seconds.” Oh, but it even gets better, as D continued telling us about the filming, saying, “I even got to kiss Jerry Reed – and Bette caught it on camera!” So, the question now becomes, where are all these photos and what happened to them after Bette passed away?
Unlike the famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson mentioned earlier, who’s photography is preserved in his museum in Paris, France, Bette’s body of work that covered nearly four decades of the trucking industry didn’t receive the same kind of storage or treatment. After Bette’s unexpected death 14 years ago, her body of work has put on a few miles just like the trucks she photographed, traveling around the country, looking for a home, and someone who would care for them, preserve them, and appreciate them the way they were meant to be. Enter Mark Harter – a walking, talking encyclopedia of trucking history.
While Mark is well known to many in the trucking industry, I had only really had the opportunity to get to know him in recent years thanks to our mutual friends David Sweetman and Chuck Kemner, who both held Mark in high regard for his knowledge and passion for our industry. As a literal Truck Nerd, Mark has been there and got the t-shirt, so to say. He’s been a driver, having operated award-winning show trucks, pulled steel in covered wagons for PGT Trucking, and hauled cool cars at Horseless Carriage, not to mention, he’s an amazing photographer and writer.
After getting to know Mark, I made him the offer of a lifetime, calling him on the phone a couple of years ago with the question, “Mark, would you like to have Bette’s surviving body of work?” A bit overwhelmed, Mark’s response was, “Are you serious?” After telling him how much others admired him in our industry and how many felt he was right for this monumental task, Mark said he’d be honored to become the curator. And if there’s one guy who knows just how important Bette’s photos are, it would be Mark. “I knew Bette, not really well like you and others, but I held her in high regard and admired her photography of all the show trucks back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Nobody captured the spirit and personality of a truck and its owner better than Bette.”
After I gave him all the boxes containing Bette’s slides, Mark shared a fun story. “Chuck (Kemner) and I were talking, and he was excited that I had all the photos, explaining to me we were going to get to see rare, unseen images from Bette’s huge archive.” With that said, Mark has begun opening up the Treasure Chest. “It’s already been pretty amazing, and I’ve only scanned/digitized a few thousand images, so far,” Mark said with enthusiasm, continuing with, “It’s trucking history, it’s nostalgic for me, and very surreal when I look at these images. Thoughts go through my head like, when was the last time anybody saw this photo? Was Bette the last person to look at or handle this slide?”
As he’s been digitizing/scanning the slides, Mark has found some classic show trucks from back in the day like Robert Manley’s yellow 1967 Peterbilt model 351 with a John Deere tractor on the side of it, Ron Golding’s blue 1996 “American Pride” Kenworth W900L, Greg Moore’s 1985 Peterbilt 359 with a custom narrow hood and ARI sleeper in Reliable Carriers’ orange and dark blue colors, David Greer’s 1998 Pete 379 and Utility Spread-Axle “Marooned” reefer, as well as others like Justin Lang’s 1992 Kenworth W900L and Jeff Boyd’s super immaculate 1995 Peterbilt model 379 tri-axle dump truck.
“There’s more to just scanning the images though,” as Mark explained. “Part of the challenge is to figure out who’s truck is in the photo or when and where a particular photo was taken.” This has led Mark to tracking down truck owners who might be able to shed some light about the photos. “I’ve spoken with several people already who have been able to help. It’s definitely a challenge, and some we may never figure out. Those images will remain a mystery.” As we talked about other images in the collection, Mark said, “I’m impressed with some of the show truck photos I have found, but the stock, random photography that Bette shot is really beautiful and truly captures the day-to-day beauty of the trucking industry.”
Bette used to say, “I can’t make you rich, but I can make you famous.” Think about all the truckers she photographed who had no idea that she was shooting their trucks while just rolling down the highway. Those unknown truckers are just as much a part of Bette’s legacy as are the owners of all the immaculate show rigs she photographed throughout the years. Mark jokes that he’s the “Curator of the Bette Garber Collection” with a few of us, but he really is. He’s a valuable asset to the trucking industry, and the right guy for the job. I know if Bette was still here, she’d entrust Mark with her life’s work, as well. So, open up that treasure chest, Mark, because we can’t wait to see what’s inside.