One of the significant society and celebrity photographers of St. Louis, F.W. Guerin was born in New York City in 1846. At age thirteen he left his family, heading westward for employment. Energetic and intelligent with a lively interest in new technology, he worked at the Merrill Drug Company in St. Louis and at Western Union before enlisting as a teenage infantryman in the Union Army. He fought under Generals Sherman, Lyon, and Grant and won the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery in combat on April 28 & 29, 1863. During the war he came into contact with photographers and developed a fascination with the art.
Upon his discharge, F.W. Guerin attached himself to a St. Louis photographic gallery doing menial jobs in order to learn the chemistry and technique. Poor pay drove him into railroading where he strung telegraph wires and briefly served as conductor of freight trains. The danger of the newly laid western rails encouraged his return to photography, when he entered into a partnership to establish Remington, Guerin, and Mills Gallery in Otummwa, Iowa. After five months his partners bought him out; Guerin used the money to return to St. Louis where he worked as camera man and retoucher in the galleries of three established photographers, J.H. Fitzgibbon, John A. Sholton, and G. Cramer. While in their employ, Guerin spent his time learning each man’s methods and techniques.
During this period, Guerin also refined his skills as a draughtsman, engraver, and painter—necessary adjuncts to developing in portrait work. In 1876 he set up as an independent camera artist, capitalized to the amount of $50, at 906 N. Sixth Street. He enjoyed little local success until 1878 when pictures submitted to the photo salon of the World Exposition in Paris won a medal for excellence. Instantly his business transformed, with sitters clamoring for his services and his reputation enabling him to secure sittings with stage performers and other celebrities. His gallery and staff expanded, requiring several relocations to larger buildings—627 Oliver Street, 1137 Washington Street, and finally, in 1891, in St. Louis's West End. He enjoyed repeated success in international exhibitions, particularly for his portraits, but Guerin believed that photographers, like graphic artists, had to cultivate the public, so he prepared many genre scenes—humorous or sentimental—for sale in his gallery to visitors.
He photographed portraits using natural light, a J.C. Summerville #3, D lens, and two large mirrors used as refractors. He experimented with wide-angle lenses and rapid shutter releases. After the invention of the flash light system of illumination, Guerin became an adherent and the most accomplished practitioner in the Midwest during the 1890s. He published a manual about the use of flash light photography for advertising, one of the rarest of American photographic imprints. In 1900 he opened the Guerin College of Photography in St. Louis. The College did not long survive his death in 1903.
NOTES: An appreciation of Guerin's genre work appears at: http://www.stlmag.com/St-Louis-Magazine/March-2009/Midwestern-Fantasia/ David S. Shields/ALS
During the quarter century of Guerin's time in business, the majority of his income came from society portraiture. He and J.C. Strauss dominated the St. Louis market. Celebrity portraiture was a sidelight to his business and an opportunity to experiment with posing. Because of the survival of trove of Guerin's popular genre images in the Library of Congress, however, this component of his business has recently taken on a particular importance among historians of photography.