Thursday, June 20, 2019

Camouflage Artist | Iowa Artist Halleck J. Finley

Halleck J. Finley (c1944)
Above A magazine photograph of American artist and photographer Halleck J. Finley in the 1940s, at which time he was an advertising artist, photographer and art director in New York. During World War I, he had served in France as a US Army camoufleur.


Finley was born in 1895 in Knoxville IA. He was the son of a school administrator named S.J. Finley, who had moved from Quaker City OH to serve as the school superintendent in Knoxville and Oskaloosa IA. The family apparently also lived in Waterloo IA, as well as in Indianapolis IN, where Halleck graduated from high school. He studied at John Herron Art Institute of Art in Indianapolis for two years, until his family moved to Hollywood CA, where he continued to study art and design. His brother, Harold M. Finley, had joined the editorial staff of The Los Angeles Times in 1909. Around 1915, Halleck Finley began to work for the advertising section of the same newspaper, while still attending classes in the evenings.

In 1916, he was hired as a scenic artist to work on the production of Joan the Woman, an important early silent film, directed by Cecil B. DeMille and produced by Jesse Lasky, with Geraldine Farrar in the role of Joan of Arc. Soon after the US entered the war in 1917, DeMille was appointed to a government committee whose purpose was “to mobilize the theatrical profession for war work.” DeMille’s particular duties, the article continues, “will be to take charge of the recruiting for the camouflage companies.”
Halleck J. Finley in 1917

In 1917 (perhaps at DeMille's suggestion), Halleck Finley and another young artist, a scenic designer named David E. Taylor, volunteered to join the army as camouflage specialists. According to The LA Times, Finley “was the first man to be recruited to this branch of the service in Southern California.” The two men were trained at Camp American University in Washington DC, in preparation for serving in France.

Camp American University (Washington DC)

While in France, excerpts from wartime letters to his family were sometimes published in The LA Times. But they offer little insight into his involvement in camouflage. As an article in that paper surmised—

Whether the censor had deleted passages telling of the camouflage work of the corps at the front, or whether the actual work of making the Germans think a big gun is only a fallen tree has not yet begun, the letters tell of no particular doings yet of the camoufleurs.


Harry A. Williams, MISSOULA MIKE A COLONEL: At Least that is What Every One Calls the Marine Philosopher, in Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1919—

[Williams describes a postwar conversation at the Times Building with a returned US Army veteran, known as Missoula Mike, who had served in France with Halleck Finley. Finley has returned from the war to work at the newspaper, and Mike recognizes him from across the room.] “See that guy with the pensive face humped over a drawin’ desk in Boss Dodge’s department. If that ain’t Halleck Finley who was over there with our camoufleurs, I’m a poor guesser.”

Mike crossed the editorial room for a closer look, and the mutual recognition was plain to the naked ear…

“Last time I saw Finley before this was up in the Argonne. The camouflage boys, at least some of ‘em, when not engaged camouflaging the trenches, roads, barracks an’ one thing an’ another was paintin’ pictures along the front. In other words, they was engaged in picklin’ a world war in oil. Crawlin’ out of the brush one day I comes on Finley all humped up in a shell hole drawing a life-like picture of a battle. About that time a small shell hits in a bucket of red paint an’ splatters it all over the canvas. That gave Finley an idea. Instead of notin’ what a close call he had, he simply remarks that the next time he wants to produce a likeness of a great battle he’s simply goin’ to drop a hand grenade in a bucket of red paint, an’ let the explosion do the rest.”


After returning to Los Angeles c1919, Finley worked for a number of years as a free-lance designer and illustrator. During the mid-1920s, he worked in collaboration with his artist wife, Frances (Mudge) Finley, whom he married in November 1923. They had two children, a son (possibly Harold) and a daughter (Eliza Lee Petofi, born Finley), but the marriage appears to have ended. While working as an art director and illustrator, Halleck Finley “continued to do his own work and many leading advertising accounts boasted Finley color paintings in their ads.”

Halleck Finley magazine illustration

Over time, he became increasingly interested in the possibilities of creating illustrations, not by painting and drawing from photographic image sources, but by using photographs themselves as illustrations. Finley moved to New York, where he was hired by McCall’s magazine to use photographs to illustrate fiction.

In the June 1944 issue of Popular Photography, Finley published an article titled “What’s the Matter with Amateurs?”  in which he characterized amateur photographers as sloppy, undisciplined and preoccupied with gadgets (they were amateurs!). The article caused an uproar, which prompted the magazine to run a lengthy follow-up feature in the August issue, titled “What’s the Matter with Halleck Finley? The Amateurs Answer Back with Pro and Con Letters to the Editor.” In one of those letters, a reader asked (apparently aware of Finley’s Midwest origins) “Where did you see that sloppy print you write about? In Muddy Creek, Iowa?”


In 1975, when Halleck Finley was 80 years old, he called the office of The LA Times, "asking for rights to reprint a piece he did in 1919, soon after he left the army camouflage forces at the end of World War I." Art Seidenbaum, the journalist who spoke with him, went on to talk to him at length about his feelings about growing old. The columnist continues—

We started to talk about old times—his—and how he'd lived in New York and Mexico and parts everywhere during the intervening years. "I never liked old people," he said, "until I woke up one day and found out I was one of them."

There is no mention of where Finley was living at the time of the phone conversation. But he continued on for twelve more years and died in Austin TX in 1987.


ABANDONS NEWSPAPER WORK TO ENTER ARMY.  Los Angeles Times, September 30, 1917.

ANGELOS TO GO AS CAMOUFLEURS. Youths Leave for East to Aid in New Division, in Los Angeles Times, September 23, 1917.

CAMOUFLAGE FROM PICTURE STUDIOS. Los Angeles Times, September 22, 1917.

IOWAN WITH "CAMOUFLEURS": Halleck J. Finley, Now of Los Angeles, Accepted in Engineering Corps, in Marshalltown Evening Times Republican (Marshalltown IA), September 28, 1917.

Art Seidenbaum, OLD-TIME DERISION. Los Angeles Times, July 18, 1975.

WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HALLECK FINLEY?: The Amateurs Answer Back with Pro and Con Letters to the Editor. Popular Photography, August 1944.