Set in Stone, Fixed in Glass
by Nelson B. Wadsworth
JAMES WILLIAM SHIPLER
and HARRY SHIPLER
“Pioneers in the Art”
[p.319] Among the young men in Pennsylvania in the 1870s who heeded newspaperman Horace Greeley’s call to “Go west” was a twenty-two-year-old photographer from McKeesport named James William Shipler. Fascinated by published stories about high mountain streams teaming with trout, endless prairies crowded with buffalo, deer, and antelope, and high adventure in the western wilderness, he quit his successful gallery in McKeesport in 1872, left his new bride in the case of his parents in Mercer County, and headed west. He had no definite plans about where to settle and locate his studio, but he was sure there would be “plenty of good fishing and hunting close by.” His older brother Joseph had gone to Colorado to seek his fortune in mining. Colorado would be a good place to begin looking for a place to relocate.1
Shipler was born on 20 July 1849 in Mercer, Pennsylvania, the third of four children born to Pennsylvania natives Peter Shipler, Jr., and Margaret Wharton Shipler.2 He grew up and was educated in Mercer County. Somehow Shipler [p.322] became interested in photography; he knew this profession would mean living in a larger city and in his early twenties moved to Pittsburgh and established a gallery in nearby McKeesport. From all indications this business developed into an elaborate studio operation, producing fine-quality albumen portraits.
When he was twenty-one in the small town of Warren, Ohio, he married eighteen-year-old Lizzie Taylor. There is no indication in surviving records that he was in business or lived there. More than likely he had met Taylor in Pittsburgh and went to Ohio to marry. While in Mercer, Pennsylvania, in 1878, Lizzie gave birth to their son Harry. Two cabinet photos have survived from the McKeesport gallery. They are pictures of the Shipler’s son Harry taken when he was a small boy, one by himself and one with his mother and grandmother. Both carry the Shipler logo and “McKeesport, Pa.,” embossed in gold. Also imprinted on the back are these words: “Shipler, Artistic Photographer, 249 and 251 Fifth Ave., Patterson Bloc, Near B & O Depot; N. R. Pictures made on Cloudy as well as Clear Days.”3 Also on the back, written in pen and pencil, is Harry’s age. On the photograph of the boy standing alone in a simulated winter snow scene are the words “10 years,” on the group photo “October, 1887, 9 yrs.”
These two photographs may indicate that James was still operating his McKeesport gallery after he had gone west to explore for new locations and possibly even after he had opened a new studio in Denver. In the next seven years he would make six journeys back to Pennsylvania as he struggled to establish a successful business in the West. He was still wrestling with where to permanently locate his business and family.4
Sometime around 1889 James took his wife and young son, who was then about eleven years old, to Great Falls, Montana, where the forty-year-old photographer relocated his gallery. But business proved to be lean, and they remained only about a year. Then they moved to Salt Lake City, where the Shipler finally found a permanent niche. A family legacy of photography continues in Utah to this day.
A picture of Harry taken when he was about twelve or thirteen years old, [p.326] shortly after the Shiplers arrived in Salt Lake City, demonstrates that Shipler had modernized. In the picture Harry wears a wool suit, Civil War forage cap, and white gloves and holds a musket at parade rest. He is standing on an artificial grass turf situated in front of an elaborately-painted backdrop. The photograph is a gold-toned, gelatin-bromide print, demonstrating that Shipler had switched from the slower, more cumbersome albumen process to the faster, more convenient bromide papers mass-produced by Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York. Shipler was following the trend of other photographers at the time.
Albumen papers, the mainstay of photography for more than twenty-five years, died a lingering death. Some operators resisted the new bromide papers, admittedly more convenient but arguably inferior in quality to albumen prints. Albumen papers came from the factory coated with the albumen emulsion, but the photographer had to sensitize each sheet by carefully floating it on a meticulously maintained bath of silver nitrate. The sensitized sheets then had to be hung and dried in the darkroom before the operator could make his exposures in wooden printing frames. Albumen prints relied on a “printing-out process.” This meant that every print was a contact image of the negative, developed in sunlight, and then gold toned and fixed in the darkroom. If the photographer wanted a big picture, he had to make a big negative.
In contrast, bromide papers were coated with gelatin, silver nitrate sensitized, and dried at the factory. This factory process eliminated at least two awkward steps for the photographer. Bromide papers were not “printing-out” papers. Rather, they could be exposed in the artificial light of a bright “No. 2 kerosene burner” or “gas light” and then developed, fixed, and toned in solutions arranged in trays in the darkroom. In addition bromide papers were much more versatile than their albumen forerunners. For example, contrast was much easier to control, and contact prints could be made.
Enlargements or “projection prints” also became possible. With the advent [p.330] of bromide paper, photographers converted large view cameras into diffusion enlargers by placing a mirror in front of an ordinary, outside-facing window, the pane of which had been replaced with a sheet of ground glass to diffuse the light. The camera was placed with its lens facing the window in front of a carrier holding the negative to be enlarged. The image was refracted through the lens and camera bellows and projected onto an easel on the opposite wall where a sheet of photographic paper had been attached. Bromide emulsions were sensitive enough to make this procedure practical.5
The quality of albumen prints varied according to the strength of the photographer’s silver nitrate bath and the exactness of his or her technique. With the albumen process even the slightest variation in a complex series of steps affected final results. The use of bromide papers promoted standardizing procedure and quality control.
Many photographs made in Utah after 1886 utilized the new factory-packaged bromide papers. But a number of photographers, including C. R. Savage, C. W. Carter, and J. H. Crockwell, were slow to adapt. Crockwell was still “silvering” albumen papers in his gallery in Virginia City as late as 1891, and Carter was still making collodion wet-plate negatives and albumen prints well into 1890s. Still the process which produced the beautiful gold-toned albumen image was virtually abandoned in Utah and America after 1895.
Shipler’s bromide print of his son Harry is skillfully mounted on a cabinet photo card, gilded on the edges, and embossed with the photographer’s logo, “Shipler, Extra Satin Finish, Hooper Block, Salt Lake City.” The picture was no doubt among the first taken by Shipler in his newly-established gallery in Salt Lake City sometime around 1890.
Arriving on the Utah scene shortly after the anti-polygamy Manifesto, Shipler filled a void. He was among the first, if not the first, non-Mormons to set up a commercial gallery in the capital city. He was instantly patronized by both the Mormons and gentile populations. Cultural compromise was a required precursor for Utah to achieve statehood. In such a context commerce between [p.332] Mormons and outsiders became more common. Shipler had learned his technique and honed his skills in an urban, eastern establishment. His experience made him more than capable of competing in Utah’s transforming environment. Shipler eventually brought his son into business, and Shiplers would run a commercial photography gallery and a camera and photo supply business for the next hundred years.6
Shipler was of slight build, intelligent, outgoing, and delighted to travel, particularly in the direction of a trout stream. He surrounded himself with friends who had similar interests. When he built his camera stores, he set aside a back room where they could sit, read, drink coffee, and discuss politics, or [p.333] their latest adventures into the wilds of Utah. The group of regulars, who were known to exaggerate the size of their latest catch, was dubbed “the Liar’s Club.”
Shipler became an avid fan of Zane Grey. In addition to Grey’s fifty-four novels with western settings, he also wrote six books on fishing—Shipler’s favorites. His grandson recalled, “Grandfather spent nearly all of his time reading Zane Grey books. Once he told me he had read everything Grey had ever written. He said, ‘Been through ‘em all, so now I guess I’ll start all over at the beginning.’ And he did at that.”7
Most of Shipler’s Utah pictures were taken between 1890 and 1914. After that Shipler turned the business over to his son and concentrated on fishing. During his twenty-four-year period, Shipler would document crucial events in Utah’s history. His son and grandson would produce the most thorough documentation of the state.8
When Shipler had first arrived in Salt Lake City, his Mormon neighbors were excitedly anticipating laying the final capstone on the massive new temple. The middle-aged Pennsylvania photographer decided to be there when the historic event took place. If he could capture the decisive moments on glass negatives, he surmised, it just might help put the Shipler name and logo in the forefront in this predominantly Mormon community.
By the time James celebrated his fiftieth birthday in 1899, his son Harry had already developed into one of the leading news photographers in Utah. Harry claimed he was the only news photographer in the capital city shortly before the turn of the century—and he worked for all five newspapers at the same time.9 Of course newspapers at that time did not use photographs per se. The half-toning process, though developed in 1888, would be a long time coming to the back shops of Utah newspapers. Photographs were converted by the newspapers’ staff artists into line drawings which were published in the papers.
In general, young Shipler, at the age of nineteen or twenty, was shooting portraits, buildings, and landscapes. But he was not content with such static figures. Early one morning he was sitting in the offices of the Salt Lake Tribune, [p.338] chatting with the editorial crew. It was 19 June 1898, a lazy Sunday, and most of the staff was off for the day. The telephone rang: “Park City is on fire! The whole town is going up in smoke!”
Harry grabbed his camera and headed for the door. This was before paved highways and Harry traveled by bicycle. He probably took with him a 4-by-5 inch or 5-by-7 inch glass plate field camera similar to the popular “Cycle Poco,” which was designed to be strapped in its leather case beneath the main tubular strut of a bicycle. A photographer could carry the folded camera, several plate holders, and a collapsible tripod in the sturdy case and freely peddle over the bumpiest, unimproved roads. It took Harry more than eight hours to peddle to Park City, and the town was smoldering ruin when he arrived.10
The residents were still in a state of confusion as Harry made his pictures and began gathering information. He remained in Park City for twenty-four hours, taking photographs and “just talking to people because he was interested in getting the details.” The fire had started about four in the morning on Sunday [p.339] by an overheated stove in the kitchen of the Freeman House, also known as the American Hotel. The fire raced down Main Street to the Union Pacific Depot, destroying all of the businesses and public buildings in its path. Fanned by a brisk wind, the fire also spread into nearby residential areas, consuming wood-frame structures as if they were kindling. Miraculously no one was hurt, but damage in the first reports was estimated at “more than a million dollars.” A sizable portion of Park City had been razed.
Harry took careful notes, anticipating that his editor would be interested when he peddled back to Salt Lake City. The paper in fact asked him to write a story for the front page. Harry insisted he was no reporter and gave his [p.342] information to another writer. But the newspaper manager offered him a job as reporter. “I talked myself blue in the face to get out of being a reporter,” the photographer later recalled. “Whew! That was a narrow escape!”11
As the newspapers finally learned to make half-tones, Shipler was more and more in demand. He traveled around the intermountain west taking pictures for a wide variety of clients. His “scoops” included an avalanche at Highland Boy, Utah’s first fatal automobile accidents, a telegraphers’ union walk-out, some of Utah’s first labor strife, construction of the new Utah capitol building, installation of Salt Lake City’s transit system, the great world automobile race, and action shots in Yellowstone National Park.
Shipler happily relinquished his old bicycle for an automobile sometime before 1905—a shiny new Maxwell Phaeton with a canvas roof and padded leather seats. Harry was fascinated by automobiles and photographed many of the first cars to travel over Utah’s roads. In 1904, for example, he photographed [p.343] “skyscraper-builder” Samuel Newhouse sitting with his chauffeur in a shiny new Maxwell, probably parked in front of his mansion.
Shipler and other members of the Liar’s Club liked to take their high-clearance automobiles onto Utah’s unimproved wagon trails. Once Shipler and his automobile friend, Frank Botterall, who owned the local Hudson/Dodge dealership, drove all the way from Salt Lake City to Grand Canyon in an open roadster—all in a single day. They loaded up their car with Salt Lake Tribunes and distributed them along the way to dramatize what they were doing.12 Another of Shipler’s automobile friends, Wallace Bransford, son of Salt Lake City mayor John S. Bransford, bought a Folding Pocket Kodak or Ansco and took it with him on some of the automobile explorations. However, the younger Bransford’s camera could hardly have fit in his pocket. It was a folding camera with bellows [p.346] and took postcard size photographs, 3 1/4 by 5 1/2 inches. With the right lens, the quality of the images was excellent, definition and resolution depending on whether the photographer could afford a camera fitted with a sharp, Zeiss Kodak anastigmat lens or settled for the cheaper but softer Rapid Rectilinear version. Photographs by Bransford of the automobile excursions and also of Utah’s first airplane meets have survived.13
In 1912, when Harry was only thirty-four, he took over active management of Shipler Photography from his father who had decided to retire to his fly rod. The older Shipler continued to work in the store but left all of the photography to his son. By then J. W. was considered the most experienced fly fisherman in Utah and was known all over the West. He traveled extensively throughout the western states in search of the best fishing holes.
James W. Shipler remained as avid fisherman and fan of Zane Grey to the end. He was still casting a fly rod at age eighty-seven. A year later he died at the home of his son, Harry. His obituary eulogized him as “the dean of Salt Lake photographers” and added that he was the oldest member of the Utah-Idaho [p.350] Rod and Gun Club, having belonged for twenty-five years.
Harry traveled too, but there were cameras rather than fishing poles in his hands. He and his wife, the former Jessie Grace Smith, often traveled to Saltair to capture sunsets on the Great Salt Lake. Harry always called these pictures “my specialty.” Jessie colored the photographs with Marshal’s transparent oils. The two were married on 8 August 1905 when he was twenty-seven and she twenty-five. They had three sons, George William (“Bill”), Robert Thomas (“Bud”), and James Harry. Both Robert and George became photographers, as did George’s son, William Hollis.
James W. had built a new home at 545 Elizabeth Street, which Harry and Jessie moved in to. The home still remains in the Shipler family. By the time [p.352] Harry retired from active involvement in the 1960s, the Shipler negative collection, which included the work of three generations of photographers, numbered more than 100,000 images, the largest such historic photo collection in Utah and possibly the west.
As Harry Shipler grew older, he passed more and more of the business to his son, Robert, and nephew, William. On 14 July 1961 Harry, as his father before him, died at the home on Elizabeth Street. His eulogy was printed on the editorial page of the Salt Lake Tribune: “For many years Harry Shipler was a familiar figure on Main Street. He operated the photography store (now known as Bill Shipler Photo) which his father founded. And his neatly trimmed beard made him resemble an old-time family doctor. Harry Shipler probably knew as much about photography as anyone in this state—or a dozen states, for that matter—for he was a pioneer in the art. The principles of photography had, of course, been discovered before he was born, but he was taking excellent pictures long before such refinements as light meters or fast film were available. One of his favorite stories was about the great Park City fire at the turn of the century which he ‘covered’ after making the trip up Parleys Canyon by bicycle.”
4. Salt Lake Tribune, 11 Mar. 1937, obituary notice for James W. Shipler. There seems to be a discrepancy in the records His obituary says he left with his wife for the west in 1874. Yet we find him back in his McKeesport gallery photographing his ten-year-old son in 1878. One explanation may be that he made frequent trips to divide his time between two separate galleries, one in Denver and the other in McKeesport. Another possibility is that Shipler left [p.353] his family in the east with his parents and travelled back and forth searching for a final place to settle. Since he was an avid outdoorsman, he no doubt enjoyed his travels through the western wilderness with his brother where he could catch fish and hunt.
5. Charles Ehrmann, The Photographic Instructor (New York: Scovill & Adams Co., 1890), 72-81. This is a detailed manual “for the professional and amateur” written by the instructor of the Chautauqua School of Photography. The chapter cited is entitled, “Printing on Permanent Bromide of Silver Paper.”
6. A Shipler photo store has been in various locations on Main Street in Salt Lake City since 1890. The last one at 118 South Main Street was closed in 1989 when the building that housed it was torn down for a parking lot. The Shipler commercial business operated by Shipler’s great-grandson, William (Bill) Shipler, continues today.
8. Their valuable archive of photographs is preserved today by the Utah State Historical Society. Shipler was apparently allied with a man named DeLong about 1891 since photographs of the Salt Lake temple bearing that logo exist.