One of the most refined and expert portraitists of the Midwest, E.L. Fowler began his camera training at age fifteen in Niagara Falls, New York, under the tutelage of landscape photographer George Barker. A hunger for the excitement of city life—something he had experienced in San Fransisco, the city of his nativity, during his boyhood—caused him to move to Chicago in 1881. There he contracted to serve as photographer Joseph Gehrig’s chief camera operator, a post he occupied for five years. In 1886 he went into business for himself, perhaps because Gehrig had won the Gold Medal at the St. Louis Convention of the Photographers Association of America for portraits for which Fowler was partially responsible.
During the mid-1880s he characterized himself as an artist as much as a photographer and maintained his studio at 3100 Forest Avenue in Chicago. In 1889 his artistry as a photographer earned him both of the major prizes offered at the exhibition of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 1891, he married Anna West and moved his studio to Evanston, Illinois thinking to benefit from the proximity of Northwestern University, the college portrait market being a mainstay of major portraitists nationally. Initially he found patronage difficult to secure, and moved his studio location several times in a restless effort to find the optimum mix of low rental cost and high foot traffic. He eventually found a locale on the corner of Orrington & Church Streets. His wife Anna worked as his retoucher throughout his entire professional career.
Fowler pursued both portraiture and landscape photography during his years in Evanston. His expertise in celebrity portraiture was such that artists performing in Chicago would trek northward to Evanston for a sitting. His fame grew to such an extent that members of the theatrical syndicate tendered him an offer "to go to New York and do all their theatrical work." He refused, choosing the more stable business of a university portraitist servicing surrounding institutions, sometime celebrity photographer, and supplier of documentary architectural photography in Chicago.
From June of 1915 until October 1916 Fowler operated without a public place of business, before taking studio space in Evanston’s Hoyden building. During the 1920s changing fashions in portraiture made Fowler’s style seem retrograde. Moving into the city, he refocused his business, performing architectural documentation photography for a host of Chicago companies from his Lake Park Avenue home studio. He died on July 6, 1940.
NOTES: E.L. Fowler, Portrait and Biographical Record of Dupage and Cook Counties (Chicago: Lake City Publishing, 1894) 550. "Studio Reopened," Daily Northwestern (Oct 7, 1916) 4. Evanston & Chicago City Directories. David S. Shields/ALS