A thorough history of Adirondack photography

Review: “Adirondack Photographers: 1850-1950” by Sally Svenson

The title of Sally Svenson’s third book on history in the region, “Adirondack Photographers 1850-1950,” tells it all. She has somehow managed to compile a list of everyone who toiled behind a camera during transition from the earliest days of photography through the ubiquity of the single-lens reflex camera. Researchers will make use of the well footnoted volume forever. And there’s a lot there for the rest of us.

For one thing, the author has provided a wonderful 20-page introduction on the history of photography, from the itinerant daguerreotypist, to the collodion-coated glass plate, and well beyond George Eastman’s introduction of paper film sold by the roll. She’s shown us how even small settlements managed to support a practitioner, and how professionals began earning a living via portraiture, then selling prints of scenic vistas.

Those vistas weren’t easily captured during the early days. Photographers had to lug a backpack of equipment, coat glass plates in the field, and somehow bring everything back home without breakage. One key fad that peaked a century ago, but still hangs on at least a little, has been the postcard, a mainstay of many people spotlighted in the book. It’s instructive to compare those earlier ordeals to the ease of now just pulling a phone out of one’s pocket.

The bulk of text goes through alphabetical listing of all those photographers. Granted, one can glaze over a little while reading so many capsule biographies. Most will likely look up a few names familiar to them, then take time to skim a few more pages. Another strategy might be finding one’s community in the index and reading the entries with local interest. Once exposed (like the pun?), the casual reader will want to return multiple times.

For the purposes of a review, I read the book cover to cover, a strategy that allowed appreciation of a few trends that dabblers might overlook. I saw how some were lifetime natives of the North Country, while others were immigrants, primarily from Europe and in one case Japan. Tuberculosis brought more than a few to the region. A couple were attracted by the 1932 Olympics.

Only a minority enjoyed formal training, but cross-referencing showed how frequently one practitioner became a mentor to others. As in today’s Adirondacks, many had to cobble together several skills to make a living. Photographers at times worked as hotel managers, farmers, pharmacists, taxidermists, and even jailers. One began restoring fine paintings, and there was a tinkerer who patented a corn popper.

Tourist trade naturally became critical to many of these camera people. Hotels and railroads commissioned photos. Images became central to forest preservation debates. Seneca Ray Stoddard’s season-long tramp through the Adirondacks became the nucleus of a series of travel guides. James Pursell and his wife made their living from photos taken as they rode their tandem bicycle along mountain roads.

However, the majority spent most of their time on the expected facets of community photography. Judging from quotes attributed to advertisements, infants and young children were critical to trade. Studios emphasized their dedication to “babies, children, and old people” or “house, horse, or baby.” One man bragged “am never cross to little folks” while another promised facility with “nervous children before they can move.”

The famous and important photographers are included. If you don’t know the aforementioned Stoddard or William Henry Jackson, here’s your opportunity to catch up. I found surprises, including Elias Beaman, who accompanied John Wesley Powell’s expedition down the Colorado River, and Henry Kaiser, who operated a camera shop in Lake Placid before becoming the master shipbuilder of World War II. Alfred Stieglitz, who summered in Lake George with his wife Georgia O’Keeffe, aided the transition of photography into an art form.

Some documented particular industries — lumbering, iron mining, blueberry picking — thereby producing important historical records. Others created the records of communities, with their livelihoods, traditions, and pastimes. I regularly encountered names about which I’d like to learn more.

If the author missed anyone, I didn’t know it, and believe me, I checked on a few photographers whom I thought could be easily overlooked. The short biographies are formulaic, structured around census records, career progression, places of death and burial, yet very readable.

The author has provided a definite service in putting this volume together. She has created both a useful reference work, and also an enjoyable volume to pick up and peruse from time to time. Those with interest in regional history, not to mention photography, will enjoy having this book in their libraries.


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