Elmer E. Chickering was born in Grandon, Vermont, on February 16, 1857, and died in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 15, 1915, celebrated as the city’s greatest portrait photographer of the Gilded Age.
Chickering learned photography as an adolescent in Vermont, went into business for himself in 1870, and relocated to Boston in 1884, establishing a studio at 21 West Street. His first floor gallery was the best exhibition space in the city outside a museum; the third floor studio was equipped with state of the art cameras and lenses, including one of the earliest telephoto set ups. He immediately distinguished himself from the other professional studios in town by specializing in celebrity portraiture. Chickering’s gentlemanly demeanor won him a strong institutional clientele from baseball teams to the G.A.R. Special mention must be made of Chickering’s success with military portraits, which in 1880s Boston, vied with opera diva images for celebrity prestige.
Like Napoleon Sarony, Chickering practiced several graphic modes expertly, being a capable painter in oils, and an accomplished draughtsmen with crayons, pastels, and India ink. In his "operating room," R.M. Wilson posed the sitters. Chickering also retained a flash specialist for off-site work; T.E. Eustis did outdoor events and flashlight photography of theatre scenes and interior spaces. Chickering outfitted a portable studio in a wagon for Eustis, "enabling the artist to produce views of landscape and other scenery in distant localities in perfection otherwise unattainable." Besides administering the office, Chickering processed the prints. With the aid of his brother Walter, he expanded his business to include three studios within the city by the turn of the 20th century.
A fire in January 1903 destroyed the main studio’s backstock of negatives, valued by insurance adjustors at $27,000.
Chickering’s most significant contribution to theatrical photography was his legal contestation of the claims of the Harper & Brothers publishing company to possess copyright of the photographer’s images of the A.M. Palmer company’s production of "Trilby" because the characters were costumed in imitation of DuMaurier’s drawings illustrating the novel. The case proved useful in the ongoing struggle to preserve photographer’s property rights in the face of a concerted campaign of subversion by the publishing industry.
Elmer Chickering made his fortune through the public sale of cabinet images of beautiful actresses and handsome actors. Desiring recognition in the professional community as an artistic portraitist, he regularly exhibited at national and international salons. These exhibition images tended toward immensity, his favorite format being panels 20x24 inches in dimension. Respected within the profession and regarded a civic-minded public man, he died a Boston celebrity. After his death, the studio continued operation under the Chickering name until 1919 when George H. Hasting’s rechristened the premises "The Hastings Studio."
NOTES: "Elmer Chickering, photographer," Illustrated Boston (Boston: American Publishing and Engraving Co., 1889), 150. "The Chickering Studios," Photo-Era Magazine vol. 42 (1919), 106. "Chickering Loss Finally Settled for $30,000," The Standard vol. 52 (1903), 275. David S. Shields/ALS
Chickering would be an important source of theatrical images in prints from 1890 to 1910. And yet, Chickering’s personal approach to portraiture favored getting a characteristic likeness over visual artistry or adventurous posing. Consequently, certain images looks pedestrian when contrasted with that of his contemporaries, Benjamin J. Falk, William M. Morrison, Jacob Schloss, and Theodore Marceau. R.M. Wilson, his chief associate, proved to be a talented cameraman with a penchant for the decorative, fashionable, and daring. Wilson’s images, which never appeared over his own signature, attracted the eyes of editors and magazine art directors.