Texas Oil Photographs, 1936-1970, by Robert Yarnall Richie

Now online are 1,238 selected prints and negatives taken by Robert Yarnall Richie (1908-1984) that depict the Texas oil production and the petroleum industry, 1936-1970. These items are part of the DeGolyer Library’s Robert Yarnall Richie Photograph Collection, which consists of industrial and corporate photographs taken by Richie throughout his career.

DeGolyer Library digital collections are part of CUL Digital Collections, which contain thousands of digitized photographs, manuscripts, imprints, and works of art held by Southern Methodist University’s Central University Libraries special collections.

For more than three decades, Richie booked photography assignments from virtually all notable oil-related companies in Texas. These photographs, when viewed collectively, showcase the history, equipment, facilities, and employees of the booming Texas oil industry during the mid-20th century.

[Warren Petroleum Corp, recycling plant], June 1940, Agua Dulce, Nueces County, Texas

[Warren Petroleum Corp, recycling plant], June 1940, Agua Dulce, Nueces County, Texas

Richie’s clients, included in the digital collection, are Humble Petroleum (Exxon), Gulf Oil, Texas Oil Company (Texaco), Crown Central Petroleum, Texas Gulf Sulfur, Warren Petroleum, Magnolia Petroleum (Mobil), Atlantic Refining Company (Arco), American Oil Company (Amoco, BP), Halliburton, Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), Ethyl Corporation, Hess Oil, Houston Pipeline Company, Shell Oil, Sinclair Refining, Standard Oil, Sun Oil, Champlin Oil, IDECO, Keystone Exploration, Quintana Petroleum, the Tom O’Connor oil field, offshore rigs, and more.

Among Richie’s oil-related photographs are images of well-known individuals within the Texas oil industry, such as Ward A. (“Tex”) Thornton (1891-1949), who was known as the “king of the oil-well fire fighters.” Thornton developed nitroglycerin “torpedoes” that assisted in oil drilling, as well as nitroglycerin charges that helped in extinguishing oil fires. He is also credited with the design for the asbestos fire-fighting suit (Thornton, Ward A., TSHA)

Port Arthur refinery, The Texas Company, 1943

Port Arthur refinery, The Texas Company, 1943

In addition to documenting the individuals involved in the oil industry, Richie captured images of the facilities, equipment, and techniques being used. Photographs within the collection show images of oil industry facilities and equipment such as refineries, rock bits, drill pipes, drill strings, rotary tables, storage tanks, oil derricks, and towers. Additionally, you can see the emerging use of specific techniques, such as reflection seismology, to help map out the Earth’s subsurface and pinpoint underground oil and natural gas deposits.

Richie was able to capture images depicting monumental changes in society, including the introduction of women into the workplace during World War II. As some millions of men were sent off to war, a severe labor shortage was created at the home front. Though most women continued to labor in the then-traditional employment roles like waitressing and teaching, many took better-paid jobs in defense factories, entering the industrial workforce in such areas as shipbuilding, aircraft, and the petroleum industries. Richie captured women in the World War II work force, including a  series at the Port Arthur refinery in 1943.

Known for his mid-century modernist style, Richie often took unusual angle shots creating dramatic images of what would otherwise be mundane objects and settings. As a result, many of his photographs were eventually purchased for use by magazine publications such as Fortune, Scientific American, Time, and National Geographic. A large selection of his published and unpublished photographs can be found within the collection, including a set of oil industry photographs he submitted to Life magazine for publication in 1938.

About Robert Yarnall Richie

Robert Yarnall Richie (1908-1984) was a mid-century modernist, who worked as a photographer, on a freelance basis, for major industrial and corporate clientele, including the automobile, aviation, chemical, mining, petroleum, railroad, shipping, and steel industries.  Richie’s work was featured on the cover of magazines such as Life and Scientific American, and he has been described by his contemporaries as: “Never a news photographer, his keen interest in industry which he believes offers the greatest field for human-interest and dramatic photography, keeps him traveling from one end of the country to another” (Life, 1938).

Shown top left: Mission and Gulf Rig, May 1939. Top right: [Warren Petroleum Corp, recycling plant], June 1940, Agua Dulce, Nueces County, Texas. Above left: Port Arthur refinery, The Texas Company, 1943. Above right: Life Magazine – Oil, ca. 1937, Gladewater, TX. All photos by Robert Yarnall Richie

The Texas oil-related Richie images were made available through funding from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission as part of the TexTreasures program. The TexTreasures program was funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services which is the primary source of federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute’s mission is to create strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

About Cynthia Boeke

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