By Susanne Stempinski, field editor
and Sandi Soendker, managing editor
Renowned trucking industry photojournalist Bette Garber captured the spirit and essence of the trucking industry from the 1970s until her death in 2008. Her grace, grit and creativity, coupled with her skills, chronicled trucks and their drivers across the country.
She dangled from overpasses, rode high lifts and trailer tops, and went through the challenges of obtaining her CDL. No bridge too high, no pit too low – she did whatever it took to get the pictures and the story.
The New York Times reported her death and described her work as art. “Shooting after dark, she caught light-festooned convoys gliding through the night like illuminated armadas” – the story read.
She wasn’t always a photographer. A former fashion writer, she married Charles Garber. According to her family, together Bette and “Chuck” founded an electron microscopy company in 1970 called Structure Probe.
After the couple divorced, she turned to another world that had long fascinated her. Her interest in big trucks became a hobby, which in turn became a mission to celebrate America’s trucks and truckers.
Bette’s sister, Myra “Mikie” Friedman of Los Angeles, said Bette taught herself photography.
According to her longtime companion Leo Trotman, “she went everywhere with a camera in her hand or one in her purse.”
Trotman didn’t involve himself in the trucking world. While Garber was a fixture at trucking events, he seldom tagged along.
Over the course of 30 years, as she worked for a variety of trucking publications, she shot thousands of rolls of slide film before making the change to digital photography in 2002.
From her home base in Thorndale, PA, Bette spent a long career roaming U.S. highways and shooting stunning photos of what she described as “objects of beauty, power and majesty.”
Bette’s stock photography business, “Highway Images,” offered an impressive body of work that established her as a photographer who made shooting semi trucks an art form.
Custom trucks were her love. She collected her most dazzling photos in calendars and a series of books published by Motorbooks.
Three years ago in November, Bette died just before her 66th birthday. She had been trying to shake off persistent pneumonia for more than a year.
“We planned to grow old together and now I have to grow old without her,” Trotman told Land Line.
At the time of her death, she was editor-at-large for Heavy Duty Trucking, a Newport Business Media publication. She had an agreement with her employer for one-time rights to publish her photos, which means Bette retained ownership of them.
In her home in Thorndale that she shared with Trotman was an office full of filing cabinets packed with her work – slides, negatives, transparencies, digital files and prints. It was her studio and her archives.
Trotman estimated the number of slides in her collection at 60,000.
What about Bette’s photos?
After her death, the slides and digital files remained in the office, just as she had left it. For nearly two years, the studio was virtually untouched.
In accordance with Bette’s will, Trotman inherited nearly everything except her jewelry and photos. She clearly specified that the photos be offered to Newport with use fees to go to Trotman. The will directed Trotman, as executor, to offer the collection to the Smithsonian Institution if Newport passed.
Newport did not make an agreement with Trotman to take the entire collection. Kate Miller, president at Newport Business Media, told Land Line that Trotman allowed the magazine to keep some of the photos. In January 2009, he gave the publishing house “endless” rights to those photos.
On June 2, 2010, a post appeared on a website called hankstruckpictures.com from Trotman. He posted he was Bette Garber’s husband, and he offered her slides for sale.
When he sold the house in April 2011, he still had the collection. Trotman said he packed up some belongings and the dogs and moved to Mexico to join a woman he’d met on the Internet.
He told Land Line he also packed up Bette’s camera, computer and nearly 40 boxes of slides, awards and memorabilia, and drove to the border. There he hired a truck to transport them to northwestern Mexico.
Three months ago, Land Line located Trotman in Torreon, a city in Coahuila, Mexico. He reported that he had just sent Bette’s collection to an acquaintance in the states, hopeful that someone would buy them.
That acquaintance was OOIDA Member Kim Grimm, a trucker from Wisconsin whom Bette called her best friend. Kim had also found Trotman in Mexico. He sent her the slides, computer and Bette’s camera, hoping she would help sell them. Kim says she has already sent Leo $1,000 for the camera and plans to help Leo sell some of the slides, but her primary loyalty is to Bette’s family whose desire was to get the collection to a safe place.
According to Kim, it was a complicated and harrowing process to get the packed boxes back across the border. She didn’t know much about the complexities of shipping a large pallet of personal belongings across the border, but she knew someone who did.
Carl Carstens, president of Rockwood Products truck accessories, was a longtime friend and a friend of Bette’s. He ships orders internationally and was happy to help navigate the labyrinth of customs.
It was late August. And as the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas was dominating the trucking world, the small number of informed family members and friends of Bette’s fretted with the passing of each day, waiting for the delivery from Mexico.
Finally … back home and safe
In early September, a UPS truck rolled down the road, hauling a load to the distribution center in Chicago. To the driver it was just another day. But to family and friends of the late Bette Garber, it contained 37 boxes, tubs and totes of dreams and memories, heading home from a long journey.
On the day they arrived, Kim went to the UPS center and signed for them. She loaded them onto a motorcycle trailer and took them home.
“The waiting had been horrible and full of obstacles,” Kim said. “That night, just seeing all those boxes and opening a couple of them, I found loose pictures of Bette when she was younger and some of her awards. I cried and cried and cried some more.”
Kim won’t disclose exactly where they are now, but says they are in a “safe and secure” place. At press time, she says she is still going through the slides. While she found many dirty and sticky from the trip, she is happy to salvage and restore whatever is possible.
Bette’s family – sister Mikie and brother Joel Friedman – are relieved to have their sister’s pictures back stateside. The boxes also contained the Friedman family photos, photos the Friedmans never thought they’d see again.
Some of the slides will likely be sold, and some may even be presented to various trucking museums.
Mikie says for some of the best images, the future holds one more special journey. They will be placed safely in the hands of the place Bette wanted them to go – the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. LL
Editor’s note: Thanks to all of Bette’s friends and family who contributed background, details and photos for this article. Special thanks to the Friedman family, Kim Grimm, Carl Carstens, Gary Bricken, Deborah Lockridge, Kate Miller, Susie Overstreet, Deb Whistler, David Sweetman and Leo Trotman.