Photographs, and Southeast's old-time photo studios
Americans love to take pictures. We take photos of each other when we go to the beach, family reunions, special holidays, class reunions, class graduations, and sporting events. We take pictures with our parents, our sisters, our brothers, our best friends, the family dog or cat, our significant others. We snap photos of outings, picnics, and landscapes. Let's face it, we take pictures and photos of anything and everything – and it's so easy now, since we can just pull out our phone and take one. But in the 19th Century, picture-taking wasn't so easy.
In the days before even cameras were available, there was one of the earliest forms of photography found in American homes: Daguerrotypes. A daguerreotype was a picture printed on a highly-polished silvered copper plate, which could be placed on display in the dining rooms and parlors of affluent families, often on the East Coast.
Most daguerreotypes pictured still-life scenes, or single-family portraits – showing the male head of the household or his beloved wife, and in some cases – but also sometimes they were of popular authors or politicians known during the 1840s to 1850s.
By the mid-1850s, photographic artists were able to use a new process which involved collodion-on-glass negatives. This technique required both patience and persistence of the photographer! Once the photographer was ready to shoot, a cumbersome plate of glass was retrieved from a canvas bag and coated with collodion. With nimble hands he dipped what would become a glass negative into a bath of "nitrate of silver" and slid it into the side of a box camera that was usually stationed on a wooden tripod – and then the camera was set to take a picture.
This procedure often required the assistance of two or three nimble helpers, who toted the heavy camera, along with a set of glass plates and the photographic chemicals, from place to place and from town to town. Outdoor shots were the most challenging, since they involved climbing hills, fording rivers, and dodging wildlife and loose rocks. Any clumsiness on the part of the photographer's assistant could result in disaster and considerable expense, since most replacement items usually had to be ordered from far away.
For portrait shots, these exposures were slow, and the subject had to hold a pose for a minute, or even longer. Any subjects who couldn't freeze their expression and all body motion for more than fifteen seconds usually appeared blurred on the final print. No wonder there were so many people with somber looks on their faces when these early photos were taken!
By the time of the Civil War, there was a new photographic technique, introduced as hundreds of young men were called to serve on one side or the other. And, before departing on their journey, they made sure that a picture was taken of them. Often called tintypes, these new images could be processed on thin sheets of metal that could easily fit into a shirt pocket or vest. Tintypes were convenient for photographers, as the time to process the final photo took only 10 to 15 minutes, and clients or soldiers could stay in the waiting room until their photo was finished. Many temporary photo shops were set up close to where these new Civil War recruits were gathering.
As noted earlier, very few people smiled in any of these vintage photos – and many of the tintype portraits found today show young boys with a lonely look on their faces. Older and more seasoned men just looked grim. Once these portraits were completed, solders sent their tintype photos back to loved ones or parents who, up to then, might not even be aware that these young men had gone off to war! Others were mailed to girls they left behind, as a remembrance. Some solders actually carried their photo with them, so they could be identified on the battlefield, if they never returned.
After the end of the Great War Between the States, having such tintype photographs taken became much more widely popular, and these photographs could be purchased at photo booths at carnivals and fairs. Even as late as 1905, when The Oaks Amusement Park opened in the Sellwood by the Willamette River, tintype photos were still a popular attraction. The "Photo Concession" was a place where average workers could have their picture taken, sometimes for the first time in their lives. Fancily-dressed groups could pose for the camera, with the final result being a cherished memento for the family album or the fireplace mantel.
Those who sat for such photos were usually unfamiliar or uncomfortable around this new type of technology, and the result in many photos was ladies staring off into the distance, or looking perturbed at the photographic process. Even in the early 20th Century, very few people smiled or were arm to arm with in group photos, and most photographers weren't yet prodding people to smile for the camera.
Photography was still then basically a hobby, and not a profession. That changed when commercial photography started being showcased at World Fairs around the United States. People who spent their vacations visiting various Expositions wanted a souvenir to remember their trip by, and having their picture taken with friends was a fun experience they could share with everyone back home.
Brothers Fred H. and Oscar H. Kiser became Oregon's most prominent team of commercial photographers early in the 20th Century. As stated in the "Biographical History of Fred Kiser", on file at the Oregon Historical Society, the brothers established their first business in 1902 in Downtown Portland. Oscar died in a boating accident just as the business was staring to prosper, but Fred went on to accept a position as an official photographer at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904 – and, by the following year, he had achieved the right to be the major commercial photographer at the Lewis and Clark Expo in Portland in 1905. It was here that he introduced some of the first colored postcards made. He called them "Artographs". Generally, all postcards during that era were printed in black and white – but Fred added hand coloring to his scenic landscapes, and the public scooped up as many Artograhs they could find. The hobby of collecting postcards was gaining popularity, and many people traveling the globe also wanted to bring home photographs of where they'd been, to share with friends and relatives.
Fred's next project was a tour across the country to promote his hand-colored landscape photos of the Pacific Northwest – which included Crater Lake and Glacier Park. As it turned out, his hand-colored postcards actually played a part in these destinations becoming National Parks.
After his return to the Rose City, he was hired by both the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railroad – both of which sold his colorful postcards and prints in railroad stations across the nation, and also used many of his landscapes to promote rail travel to the public.
Never one to rely on his past accomplishments, Fred sold his photography business in Portland to concentrate on photographing the Historic Columbia River Highway, which had just been completed east of Gresham, and opening a photo concession at Multnomah Falls.
After this lucrative venture, Fred Kiser returned to Portland, where he set up the Kiser Photo Company in the heart of the Brooklyn neighborhood at 3833 S.E. Milwaukie Avenue. The storefront windows of his studio were outfitted with colorful velvet backdrops, and huge promotional pictures of some of Oregon's most exquisite landscapes and majestic views.
By 1922, Fred also began operating a motion picture studio in a building near the rear of his studio. Rita Leonard, longtime correspondent for THE BEE, in the July 2007 issue of this newspaper offered a more in-depth look at the old studio – and the motion picture business with it – both was located in the Brooklyn neighborhood. By 1929, Fred Kiser had retired, choosing to spend his remaining days in California – but today, long after his demise, he is still remembered as Oregon's nationally-known scenic artist.
In the early days of the last century, few people owned a camera. Photography was still a curiosity, to most. But, having one's portrait done at a professional photo studio was beginning to stir public interest. Most of Portland's early photo studios were located downtown, and their smartly-decorated interiors beckoned businessmen, newly-wedded couples, and affluent families to have their portrait taken. As photograph sales increased, small photo studios began showing up in the suburban areas around town as well.
Olin Royce and A.J. Kilcoyne opened the first two photo studios in Sellwood: Olin's Sellwood Photo Studio was located at S.E. 14th and Umatilla Street, near Sellwood School (now Sellwood Middle School); Kilcoyne had a studio near 13th Avenue and Nehalem, just a few feet behind todays Grand Central Bakery. Their photo studios were certainly not as elaborate as the downtown photo emporiums; they were simple buildings with a large glass window on the front to display current photos by the owner.
Olin, at the time, might have displayed a class graduation picture from Sellwood School in his front window, to invite orders from parents who had not yet considered one for their family album. Inside the shop, Kilcoyne or Olin might have displayed family portraits of local residents on the walls, or could have used an impressive photo of Multnomah Falls or the Columbia River Gorge, which of course a customer could buy.Often such photographic props as a wicker chair, a velvet couch, or a decorative table and lamp might be used when taking portraits, to enhance the background. And yes, photographers would keep on hand a selection of fancy ladies' hats, men's dress suits, and other clothing suitable for either gender, for patrons to wear during a photo shoot if they couldn't afford to dress that way for the photo. Many working families didn't own any expensive clothes; but when it came to having their picture taken, they wanted to look prosperous in their portraits. Some studios even had pets roaming around the studio which clients could choose to include in their photograph.
Sellwood was still a small community in 1915, and it would have been hard for most photographers to make a living – but the community apparently offered enough business to keep at least the Sellwood Photo Studio profitable. In 1922 Olin Royce sold his photography business to Kenneth Brown, who promptly moved it onto 13th Avenue, near the former location of the Sellwood Bee Office, where it would be more accessible to the public.
Like many of the pioneers who settled in Sellwood, Mr. Brown had had many vocations during his lifetime, and worked a variety of jobs. Before he dabbled in photography, he owned a grocery store along Umatilla Street; and when he wasn't in the darkroom of his photo studio printing photos, he was an active member of the Sellwood Board of Trade, President of the Sellwood Businessmen's Club, and a regular speaker on the subject of improving the neighborhood.
In mid-April of 1922, Mr. Brown offered his studio space for Sellwood's first annual Artists Exhibit. A dozen artists from the area, in various media, set up their paintings, photography, and crafts, and offered the community free admission to stop in, and perhaps purchase a piece of art.
Small local photo studios in Inner Southeast didn't only have to worry about competition from rival studios downtown, but also from itinerant photographers passing through.
Traveling photographers went from town to town selling their services, and it wasn't unusual to find one or two nearby in summer, canvasing Portland neighborhoods. Temporary photo booths could be found at the Portland Rose Festival; carnivals; the circus, when it was in town; and at the big ocean resorts on the Oregon Coast – or, in fact, at any event where people might gather and want to have their picture taken.
Such traveling photographers strolled along Milwaukie Avenue or on13th, trying to convince local barbershops, firemen, grocers, and bakers to document their profession by taking a picture of them that could be sent to family members – or could dazzle their customers on the counter or in their front windows. The Oregon Historical Society has thousands of photos taken of streetcar employees, who had forked over money to have their photo taken at one time or another, and whose pictures consequently are now in the historical archives.
In the 1920s and 1930s, there's a record of a photographer with a goat or two and cart who would scour Inner Southeast Portland looking for children to pose in his wagon. The goat would attract the attention of children playing outdoors, after which it took little convincing to get the youngsters to pose with the goat in a photo. Once the finished portrait was shown to the parents, it was a sure sale. Who would turn down the offer to buy a few adorable prints of their own kids with a goat?
This sort of salesmanship appeared over and over in the following decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, photographers wandered the same streets of Sellwood with a pony, and different sizes of cowboy and cowgirl outfits, to be worn during a photo by a little individual. Even this writer has a photograph, taken in 1960, of himself dressed in a fringed black and red cowboy outfit, with a big grin on his face. I still have that red cowboy hat today, but it doesn't fit my head like it used to.
But, to complete our story of the emergence of photography, in 1900 – when those tintypes were the popular form of portrait photography – the Eastman Kodak Company introduced a handheld camera called the "Brownie". It was so simple that even a child could use it; and after it caught on, the Brownie helped turn Americans into their own amateur photographers.
The camera's black rectangular box, wrapped in imitation leather, sold for only one dollar – but the company hoped to recoup its investment through the sale of film, and from the charge for developing and printing the pictures for the customer. This became a very successful marketing scheme, and even today Kodak Brownie cameras turn up from time to time in someone's attic. Or, you may find one for sale in an antique store – but not for one dollar!
As time went on, owning a camera and taking ones's own pictures was so cheap and easy that nearly everybody could enjoy the hobby. Photo studios were no longer needed; camera enthusiasts could now take their film to be developed at the neighborhood pharmacy or drug store. After waiting a week for their pictures to be printed and returned, anxious amateur photographers were able to enjoy the snapshots they had taken with their hand-held camera.
Today taking a picture is ewven faster and more convenient than ever – high quality digital cameras create instant photos, and of course most cell phones also have digital cameras built in.
But if you happen to find one of those vintage portraits, take the time to study and appreciate the craftsmanship and the quality of those old photo studios in creating a lasting family legacy – and in documenting neighborhood history as you see it here each month, in articles such as this, in THE BEE.
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