The Other Side of the Lens
by Terry Hogan
In genealogy, one of the best ways "to put meat on the bones" is to have a photograph of the ancestor. Of course, this has a temporal limitation as photographs didn't really find their way to the ordinary person until approximately the 1850Ős. Some of us are lucky. We have boxes or even trunks full of hand-me-down family photos of ancestors. Unfortunately, we often find that such items as names, dates, and places have not been recorded on the photos. Thus we are confronted with anonymous ancestors or friends of ancestors, staring at us from the past, looking to us for recognition.
Sometimes there are ways to put names with faces. The most obvious way is to ask questions of living family members who might be able to recall some or all the faces or places. Ask more than once. Our memories are fickle things. What doesn't appear today might appear tomorrow. This is the easy way, and the lucky way, if that is still an option.
Perhaps the photographer, himself, will provide a clue. First, turn the photo over and look for a revenue stamp on the back. It will look like a postage stamp. If you find it, or find the glue where it was before a youthful stamp collector scraped it off, you will know that the photo was taken during or shortly after the US Civil War. A tax was imposed on photos to help generate money for the war.
Next, turn the photo to the front and study the background carefully. Are there signs, buildings, or other clues that provide the location and approximate vintage of the photo? Are there street cars? Are they electric or pulled by horse? Look at the people. Do they look familiar? Do they have eyes that look like one of your relatives? A family nose?
Now, look at the photo itself. Many of the so-called cabinet cards bore the name and location of the photographer, either below the photo, or sometimes on the back of the photo. This will often give a clue as to location of the photo. For example, we had some family photos that included a young man and woman in separate photos, but were taken by the same photographer, in the same small town in Ohio. The photos were in with other family photos, but nobody knew who they were. In doing genealogy research on my mother's side of the family, I had traced one branch of her ancestors from New York, through Ohio, through Indiana, where the husband/father served in the Civil War in an Indiana infantry unit, and then later to Wataga, Illinois. I had learned that they buried a toddler somewhere in/near LaPorte, Indiana. She had died of scarlet fever. I found her obituary in a microfilmed LaPorte newspaper.
Going back through the old family photos again, I came across the two old photos of young, unknown faces, captured in time. I noticed the location of the photography shop. It was the same small town in Ohio where my maternal great, great grandfather and great great grandmother were married. I had their marriage record from his Civil War pension records. There is little doubt that the photos were of Horace and Electa Marsh. The identification was made possible by the photographer's information on the front of the cabinet card, when combined with other genealogical research.
This brings me to the title of the article. From about the mid 1800's on, the invisible photographer - the guy on the other side of the lens has played a key role in helping genealogists. But despite this, there really is very little recorded about these entrepreneurs. For example, Galesburg was blessed with a large number of photographers in the late 1800Ős and early 1900Ős. They did family photos. They did funerals. They did the occasional building fire and train wreck. Probably the best known local photographers were Osgood and Loomis. They must have had a long run in Galesburg, as each left a legacy of recorded Galesburg history. I have come to this conclusion not through any scientific method, but rather just from their frequent occurrence in stacks of old photographs for sale in Galesburg antique stores.
There were many other local photographers whose names I won't list, simply because I have little else but their names to offer up. Harrison is perhaps a minor exception, only because of his brief moment of history making. In October 1858, Harrison traveled from Galesburg to Monmouth and photographed a state politician. The subject had been in Galesburg a few days earlier for a political debate. Two years later, that politician, Abe Lincoln, became president during the critical time of our Civil War. Whether Harrison knew that Lincoln was bound for greatness, or whether he thought the photo might be a good economic item if Lincoln were to become state senator after the debates, is not known by me. But as often is the case, it is better to be lucky than good. Harrison found his moment of fame and may be remembered for this photo alone.
But we still don't know much about the guys who carried the heavy cameras of the day and had to fuss with the chemical processes in uncontrolled temperatures in search of the perfect, or at least acceptable, photo. Some had stationary studios. Some traveled the country side by wagon, visiting small towns and remote areas that did not support a local studio. Often the local studios had backdrops and relied upon fake Greek or Roman columns to aid in producing a sense of grandness often betrayed by the shabby "Sunday's-best" being worn by the subjects.
But these Galesburg photographers were on the other side of the lens. Their own photos were not taken. Their history was not recorded. In my limited collection of Galesburg and Knox County history references, I could not find a discussion of these early pictorial historians. Carl Sandburg, in his autobiography, Always the Young Strangers (1953), mentions Osgood as being a well-known photographer, but only in the context that he (Sandburg) helped put a metal roof on Osgood's house. Even the great local history of Galesburg and Knox College, They Broke the Prairie (1937), by Earnest Elmo Calkins fails to address the men who recorded the early visual history of Galesburg. The county histories cover local politicians, banks, fraternal organizations, Swedes, Irish, animals, factories, banks and bankers, and the list goes on, but not the local photographers
It seems nobody photographed the guy on the other side of the lens or recorded his story. Our local history is a little poorer for it.
We know little of the guy on the other side of the lens.