By Dennis O’Reilly

Photography as we know it today literally burst onto the world scene in 1839. Its invention is attributed to Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, a painter and maker of dioramas in Paris, France.  Daguerre had invented a photographic process made on silver coated metal plates and developed in vapors of mercury. These photos became known as daguerreotypes.

However, by 1851 collodion emulsions were being used as well. This made possible alternative photographic processes such as ambrotypes, tintypes and wet and dry glass plates. Collodion acts like a glue to help the photo chemical solutions stick to a glass base. The process was very cumbersome, but gave for the first time a glass negative from which multiple copies could be made.  This was probably the earliest method used in the Prescott area.  The amazing fact is that the basic technique later used to get a black and white negative on a piece of plastic film was the same as that employed by early photo pioneers.

The earliest-known reference to a photographer in the Prescott area was Francis A. Cook in 1864. In 1867-68, Carlos Gentile of Victoria, British Columbia was photographing the Prescott area and making portraits from a rented room.  In 1869, Gentile sold his camera to Cook and Nathan P. Pierce and left Prescott. Cook and Pierce then opened the first photographic gallery in Prescott and the Arizona Territory. This studio and gallery became very important in documenting early Prescott history and was subsequently owned or used by E.M. Jennings, William McKenna and William Williscraft.

From the 1870s through the 1890s, E.M. Jennings advertised as a Prescott photographer offering views of most points of interest in central and northern Arizona.  He produced a photo catalog, enabling the public and other photographers to order photographs. Williscraft installed an “optical solar enlarger” or large window to increase the amount of sunlight coming into the studio. During this period, the gallery produced mostly tintypes and stereograph cards.

The earliest-known photograph of Prescott is a silver albumen print mounted on cardboard that was taken in 1868. The photographer is unknown, but it may have been created in the original Cook/Pierce gallery.   This photograph can be viewed for free in the SHM Library & Archives Skyviews: Aerial Townscapes of Prescott, 1868 to 2008 Exhibit.

In 1873, traveling photographers Dudley Flanders and Henri Penlon from Los Angeles came to the Prescott area. Flanders and his assistant, Scott, presented the first known “magic lantern” slide show in Prescott and the Arizona Territory in April 1874.

Another early Prescott photographer was Daniel Frank Mitchell, of the pioneer Mitchell family, who arrived in 1877.  He quickly took over the Williscraft gallery and renamed it the “Capital Art Gallery.”  He operated it into the 1880s and formed many partnerships; the most notable was with photographer Erwin Baer.  A newspaper article documents that Mitchell and Baer purchased a “mammoth camera” in 1882.  In 1903, Baer went on to become a member of the Arizona Photographic Company, the first multifaceted photographic partnership in Arizona.  In this partnership there were five members.  They offered studio photos, location photos, print production and marketing.  Many of their photographs are on glass plates using the dry plate process.

Other early notable Prescott photographers were George Rothrock, who owned a studio on Montezuma Street in 1878, and Thomas Bate, who had a studio in the Head Building in 1907.  Unlike many 19th century photographers, Bate was able to transition to newer forms of photography and stayed in business on Cortez Street until the 1920s.

Having your picture “made” was not then considered an enjoyable endeavor, as most individuals were commonly posed in very stoic positions and were required to remain motionless for long periods. This was necessary because early photosensitive glass plates took a long time to achieve proper light exposure. Various semi-torturous devices were used and hidden behind a person or people in order to hold their heads still during a portrait session.  Babies and small children were almost impossible to photograph and often it required multiple attempts to get a good take.  Fortunately, faster-exposing emulsions and improved cameras were developed; subsequently having your photograph taken became a less arduous adventure.

Dennis O’Reilly, a Yavapai College photography instructor and collector of vintage photographic equipment and techniques, will be giving a free presentation and photo display on the processes used in capturing the historic photographs of Prescott at the Sharlot Hall Museum on Saturday, November 21 at 2:00pm. 

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.