Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

George Edward Anderson – Utah Pioneer Photographer 1860-1928: Heritage Prints at 15th Street Gallery

Rio Grande Western Train Wreck 1902, Photograph by George Edward Anderson

by Lewis Francis

Not long after the Mormons first settled in Utah, George Edward Anderson set out to photograph all he could see of his land and community. In his portable tent gallery, in front yards, and in his Springville studio, he made thousands of portraits. He also documented the civic celebrations of growing towns, the advances of industry, and the building of Mormon temples. While his numerous photographs have been preserved for over a hundred years in glass-plate negatives, very few of Anderson’s original contact prints remain.

Anderson captured the early spirit of the West in his images of Indian war vets, railroaders,|0|tradesmen, miners, farmers at work, and pioneers at rest.|1| Anderson’s photographs include the smallest details – buggy whips, washing machines, flowered hats and long skirts, watch-chains and three boys’ pet snakes – evoking a world now gone. Other memorable images include the young Queen of Utah Statehood,|2| a spinster and her spinning wheel,|3| a bear hunter with his trophy, an early flying machine and its pilot,|4| the blacksmith and his shop,|5| and swimmers at the Saltair Pavilion. One photograph even appears to have captured the outlaw Butch Cassidy working on a railroad gang during a break from robbing banks.

In 1906, Anderson’s town newspaper called him “an artist of acknowledged merit” and ranked him with two other illustrious Utahns, the scenic painter John Hafen, and sculptor Cyrus E. Dallin, who had already gained international fame for his statues of the American Indian and Paul Revere in Boston. To his associates he was handsome, witty, and inspirational, but the restless artist within Anderson estranged him from his family and financial success. The very volume of his work would suggest that he was a successful businessman; but money was apparently unimportant to Anderson, and toward the end of his career he was almost penniless, depending upon his associates for a ride to the next town, a bed to sleep in, or borrowed film for his camera.

Anderson was born in Salt Lake City in 1860, to Mormon pioneers from Great Britain who had crossed the plains in 1855. In his early teens, Anderson became an apprentice to C.R. Savage, Utah’s most famous photographer at the time. While in Savage’s studio, Anderson became closely acquainted with another employee, John Hafen, who encouraged Anderson to undertake a serious study of the interplay of light and shadow, along with artistic composition. At the age of 17, Anderson set up his own studio at 62½ Main Street in Salt Lake City, spending hours in the darkroom preparing cumbersome photographic wet plates, which he later washed in nearby City Creek.

However, studio work was unfulfilling for Anderson, who preferred the more experiential approach of photographing people in their own surroundings. As a result, he traveled extensively through the small southern Utah communities, where he would sometimes nail his Victorian backdrop to the side of a barn to take portraits. In an advertisement in the Utah Gazetteer, Anderson described his services as follows:

G.E. ANDERSON, PORTRAIT AND LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHER. The finest portable Galleries in the Country. With my improved facilities and varied experience, I am now prepared to do the finest work known to the science. I will hereafter make periodical visits to all parts of the territory. My patrons and friends will please reserve their orders for me. Due notice will be given of my visits.

About this time (1879), George Eastman introduced the gelatin-coated glass-plate — the historic predecessor to photographic film as we now know it — and Anderson was the first in Utah to use it. With the aid of John Hafen, Anderson set up permanent studios in Springville and Manti, where he became fascinated with the construction of the Mormon temple – photographing it more than 50 times. Still, Anderson remained restless, and a neighbor recalled that he once borrowed a horse and buggy to go to a nearby town on business, but simply kept moving and didn’t return for three months. His various photographic quests took him back east to Palmyra, New York, north to Alberta, Canada and south to Mesa, Arizona. It was in Arizona that Anderson suddenly became ill and had to be sent home where he died of a heart ailment on May 9, 1928. At Anderson’s death, Eva Crandall wrote this tribute: “The ground he traveled was hallowed to him. I can almost hear him say, ‘I must have a picture of this sacred spot: when I return all will be changed. Some of these old landmarks will be obliterated. Who will see them as I see them now?’”

Despite his memorable work, the photography business had been a source of unhappiness for the Anderson family, and they soon sold his negatives to the Mormon Church – nearly 19,000 glass plates of various sizes up to 14×17 inches. However, the Church found limited use for the bulky Anderson plates, so in 1960 it decided to preserve only the Church-related pictures and to discard the rest. Fortunately, a typist named Drucilla Powell took the unwanted negatives home with her, saving them from the dustbin of history.

Nearly twenty years later, the 10,000 or so Anderson plates found their way into the hands of Rell G. Francis, a Springville photographer and art historian, who had just finished his biography of Cyrus E. Dallin, Let Justice Be Done. Francis himself became obsessed with this treasure trove of historical images, and spent countless hours to create the best possible photographic prints from the century-old plates, which he designated as “Heritage Prints.” Francis worked laboriously to identify the people and places in the photographs, traveling the same roads as Anderson had. Drawing from his interviews with old-timers, research in historical documents, and Anderson’s own diaries, Francis also wrote Anderson’s biography and reintroduced his life’s work to an appreciative new audience through his 1979 book, The Utah Photographs of George Edward Anderson. Upon its publication, there was a featured exhibit of Francis’s prints at the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art in Fort Worth, Texas.

Thereafter, the Anderson prints were prominently included in traveling exhibits sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Mr. Francis’s prints of the Anderson plates were also featured in Popular Photography, and the story of their discovery in the National Geographic. Mr. Francis’s collection also merited a special visit to Springville from the world-famous photographer, Richard Avedon, during the making of his renowned work, The American West.

Upon Mr. Francis’s retirement, Brigham Young University acquired the Anderson plates, which are now part of The Harold B. Lee Library Special Collections, and can be viewed online.



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