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Images of Adirondack history

“J. S. Wooley: Adirondack Photographer,” edited by Richard Timberlake and Philip Terrie

By RICHARD FROST

Special to the Enterprise

Like many people, I first became immersed in Adirondack history through photography. For me, the portal was Seneca Ray Stoddard. First employed as a sign painter, he adopted the camera early for his livelihood. His voluminous output documents much of the region’s natural beauty, plus the impact of humans on the environment, and vice versa.

The Adirondacks proved to be fertile territory for many other such practitioners, too. While few gained the widespread recognition of a Stoddard, they nonetheless recorded town and village life, with its work and play, family celebrations and adaptation to changing eras. It’s a treat and a privilege to see their products.

One of these photographers was Jesse Sumner Wooley, whose life and work are the subject of a new book, “J. S. Wooley: Adirondack Photographer.” A series of essays addresses selected aspects of photographic technology and history. One by Caroline Welsh gives a brief survey of other regional practitioners who did similar work. Then a biographical treatment by Philip Terrie gives us insight into Wooley specifically.

He was born to struggling farmers in Wilton, and got what little formal education he managed at a one-room schoolhouse. His fortunes changed when he got a job as an errand boy for two photographers in nearby Saratoga Springs. By paying attention to the work at hand, and applying himself rigorously, he worked his way up the ladder to learning the discipline.

His next stop was at a studio in Ballston Spa. By the age of 20, he had managed to earn sufficient money–and gain sufficient confidence–to buy out the owners and start his own operation. He would stay in that community the rest of his life.

Along the way he traveled widely — Chicago for the Columbian Exposition in 1893; west to the National Parks; south into Florida; and overseas. In time, he not only roamed on his own but led formal excursions to the American West and across the Atlantic to Europe. But the Adirondacks proved his most fertile territory.

Simply stated, this man mixed photographic talent, a clear sense of artistry, savvy business expertise, and a flair for entrepreneurialism to produce a body of work that still entertains and educates. A town photographer could exert artistic flair, yet he still had to be attuned to what would sell. Thus, his product had to attract visitors and also fulfill demand for souvenirs.

Along with making portraits and landscapes, he quickly sensed the potential for new panorama cameras; this became perhaps a third of his output. He also became adept at producing postcards just as that new fad was beginning to sweep the country. Wooley made use of magic lanterns, too, developing presentations he gave to enthusiastic audiences.

Lake George was a particular focus for Wooley. He developed a special attachment for Silver Bay, the YMCA campus that continues in operation today, and served as its official photographer from 1908 until 1923.

The collected essays are engaging and informative. But in a volume about a photographer, the pictures are the crux. The images included here are all owned by Matt Finley, a Bolton Landing resident who inherited many from his father. The collection is quite impressive.

Wooley’s work can show nature in fine detail, while his broad scenic vistas offer contrast and well-honed perspective. A shot of a steamboat nearing the shore of Lake George will be the most vivid memory I carry away, but there is a host of other impressive images. Shots of the Fort William Henry Hotel are notable, as is one of the “new bridge” at Crown Point (we now know it as the “old bridge”). Included as well are some pictures taken near Plattsburgh during the 1909 Champlain Tercentenary celebration.

This book will satisfy those devoted to the Adirondack region, as well as anyone with an interest in the history of photography. I’m working on my own project about another under-recognized photographer, and I hope I can put together an equally satisfying volume.