Nineteenth century photography was at the junction of art and science, invention and commerce. It was not uncommon in the early days of photography for practitioners to make their own cameras, or reconfigure manufactured ones to suit their needs. Until the advent of the gelatin silver print, most photographers prepared their own papers and plates, using a variety of solutions, depending on the process and effects desired. According to John Coates Browne, writing in 1884 in the History of the Photographic Society of Philadelphia, "To make pictures at that time required hard work, and the chemicals used were not conducive to clean hands or linen" (Brey). The Photographic Society of Philadelphia provided a dynamic forum for both amateur and professional photographers to meet and exchange ideas, making Philadelphia an early center of innovation in this nascent field. Listed below are several of the photographers represented in the Philadelphiana Collection.
John Coates Browne was born in Philadelphia to a wealthy family. His occupation is listed in 1860s Philadelphia directories as "gentleman." He was an amateur photographer, but an ardent booster of the profession and one of the founding members of the Philadelphia Photographic Society. In the summer of 1869 Browne went to Ottumwa, Iowa, with a United States Government expedition to photograph the total eclipse of the sun. In 1891 Browne traveled to Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Alaska, returning with 200 negatives, from which he made lantern slides. His legacy is an impressive collection of photographs of vanishing Philadelphia scenes.
James Cremer began his career selling supplies for Holmes, Booth and Haydens, a photographic supply manufacturer in New York City, becoming a partner in the firm in 1854. In 1855 he established his own photographic supply house in Philadelphia. In 1860 he opened a portrait studio on 8th Street, where he also sold stereoviews of Philadelphia. By 1872 he was the largest publisher of stereoviews in the city, and among the largest in the country. He documented the construction of City Hall from 1873 – 1875 and won the bronze medal at the Franklin Institute Industrial Exhibition for his views of Fairmount Park. At the Centennial Exhibition, he won a medal for his Graphoscope, an instrument for viewing photographs, which he patented in 1875. In 1882 he sold the stereoview business to John Wanamaker Department store and retired to Brooklyn, NY.
After emigrating from England, William Nicholson Jennings worked as a stenographer and typist for John Wanamaker, the department store magnate. In 1881, while at Wanamaker's, he bought his first camera, a 4x5 inch glass plate type. On September 2, 1882, he took the first photograph of lightening, about which he lectured at the Franklin Institute. In the early 1890s Jennings assisted his friend, Frederick E. Ives, with experiments in early color photography, taking color negatives of Yellowstone Park. On July 4, 1893, he took the first photographs of Philadelphia from a free balloon. He photographed construction in progress for the Pennsylvania Railroad, using an 8 x 10 inch camera that he designed for himself. In 1920 he began working for the Aeroservice Corporation, producing aerial views of the city of Philadelphia that have become an important tool for researchers.
James McClees learned photography from his employer, M.P. Simons, in 1844. He also worked in the studio of T.P. Collins. In 1846 he went into partnership with W.L. Germon and the two worked together for eight years. In 1853 they purchased Whipple's patent for making crystalotypes (salt prints from albumen negatives), and in 1854 McClees went to Boston to take lessons from John W. Black. In a 40-page pamphlet entitled "Elements of Photography," McClees described processes then in use and how much he charged for them. In the mid 1850s he opened a branch in Washington, DC, that was said to resemble an art gallery, splendidly furnished, the walls hung with fine art. His Philadelphia Studio at 626 Chestnut Street employed 14 people, including six artists. His studios were attractions in themselves and thronged with visitors. He also had a mail order business. McClees sold his studio at 1200 Chestnut Street to William Bell in 1867 and became a collector and dealer in oil paintings.
A prominent landscape and architectural photographer in Philadelphia during the 1860s and 1870s, John Moran was the brother of the renowned painters Edward and Thomas Moran. In 1871 Moran replaced Timothy O'Sullivan as the official photographer for the second U.S. expedition, to survey and assess the possibility of constructing a canal across the Isthmus of Darien in Panama. Despite the oppressive heat and humidity in which he had to work, Moran conveyed in his photographs the beauty of this tropical landscape at the terminus of the proposed canal.
Robert Newell operated a portrait studio at 633 Arch Street from 1855 until 1865, at which time he moved to a larger studio at 626 Arch Street. The new location had a garden where families and military groups could have their photographs taken in a bucolic setting. Here he specialized in landscape and commercial photography. The studio was on the first floor, and the office and printing room on the second; the third floor was devoted to the silvering processes. Newell designed a photographic van that was copied by other photographers of the time. He supplied photographs of wares to traveling salesmen so that they wouldn't have to carry their merchandise with them. In 1872 his son Henry entered the business. R. Newell & Son did a brisk business of photographing building interiors, including the construction of the buildings for the Centennial Exhibition and Eastern State Penitentiary interiors for their 1872 annual report. Not only a businessman, but an inventor as well, Newell developed a composition for coating tanks and trays to protect them from the ravages of photographic solutions.
William H. Rau began his career at age 13 as assistant to William Bell, another notable Philadelphia photographer. In 1874 Bell recommended him for work on the Transit of Venus Expedition to Chatham Island in the South Pacific, the first attempt to use photography to measure the distance of the sun from the earth. Rau worked for E.L. Wilson's Centennial Photographic Company, the official photographers of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. On an expedition to Egypt, he used magnesium wire for light to photograph interiors of pyramids. Rau was also hired by the Pennsylvania Railroad to photograph buildings, stations, bridges, and other "scenic wonders." The railroad provided him with a stripped-down passenger coach that he modified into a photographic car, as well as an engine and crew to transport his equipment. Ahead of his time in business methods, Rau used the principles of manufacturing, dividing the work into separate departments for sales, developing, printing, and framing.
F.D. Richards was born in Wilmington, Delaware and worked as a landscape photographer and painter in Philadelphia, where he owned a Daguerreotype gallery. In 1852 he developed a new style of stereoscope and in 1857 pioneered the carte de visite in the United States. He advocated the technical use of photographic prints by painters. By 1965 he gave up photography and concentrated on painting, for which he is well known. His work was exhibited at the Brooklyn Art Association (1875 – 76), the American Art Union, the National Academy of Design in New York (1865 – 76), and The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia (1848 – 91).
Sources and Further Reading
Brey, William and Mary. Philadelphia Photographers 1840 – 1900: a Directory with Biographical Sketches (Includes a history of the Photographic Society of Philadelphia). Cherry Hill, NJ: Willowdale Press, 1992
Finkel, Kenneth. Nineteenth-Century Photography in Philadelphia: 250 Historic Photographs from the Library Company of Philadelphia. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1980.
Rudisill, Richard, et al; edited by Peter E. Palmquist. Photographers: a Sourcebook for Historical Research. Nevada City, CA: Carl Mautz Publishing, 2000.