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George Gardner Rockwood

Time Period: 
1857-1911
Location: 
St. Louis, New York City
Biography: 

(1832-1911)

Talented as a writer, musician, and photographer, George Rockwood received an honorary Ph.D. from Columbia University late in life for his contributions to the arts. He began professional life as a newspaper writer in his home town of Troy, New York. In 1857 he became managing editor of that city’s Daily Post. His tenure was brief. In the latter months of 1857, he appeared in the St. Louis, Missouri, directory as a daguerreotypist with a studio located on Fourth Street.

Rockwood's interest in photography began in his early teens when he worked as hallboy at a Saratoga Springs resort hotel. There he met Samuel F.B. Morse who enthralled Rockwood with accounts of the invention of the telegraph and his experiments in photography. Rockwood shared his interest in photography with his brother, Elihu. After two years laboring in St. Louis, George Rockwood accumulated $250. He contacted Elihu, proposed a partnership, moved East, and opened a photographic gallery with his brother at 839 Broadway. They would move to 845 shortly thereafter, into a first floor studio with restricted natural light that challenged Rockwood's ingenuity in creating effective illumination.

Early in George Rookwood’s career, his landscape photography "had no rival" from the mid 1860s to the mid 1870s. He mastered landscape work as a field photographer during the American Civil War, working out of a mobile field van. These images were produced in large format prints on card panels of either 11x14 or 14x17 inches. He hand-built a camera that could use plates 26x42 inches for panorama shots. Also noteworthy was his early embrace of the cart-de-visite as a vehicle for portraiture.

He opened a second multi-story studio on the 15th Street and Union Square that became his chief venue for portrait work during the 1880s. Early in his career he became concerned with the problems of mass-reproducing images. Like William Kurtz, whom he employed briefly in 1865, he directed his attention to methods of photo engraving. His encounter with literature detailing photolithographic processes invented in Copenhagen set him working on this technology at his studio. He became the first important photo lithographer in the United States in the early 1870s. Throughout his career, he remained attentive to the state of the art in photographic chemistry, lighting, and reproductive processes. He lectured on arc-light illumination at the photographers' conventions of the 1890s and patented an improvement on the half-tone process in 1900. Among his more unusual experiments, were those trying to creative photographic stained glass by inventing pigments that would not fade upon prolonged exposure to light.

George Rockwood differed from the majority of men who entered the profession in his verbal fluency and his willingness to commit ideas to paper. The photographic journals of the late 19th century abounded with his meditations, from discussions on "Prices and How to Get Them" to technical disquisitions on how to create embossed photographs with "A Bas-Relief Process." He issued private pamphlets for the amusement of patrons in his sitting rooms such as comic ruminations on photographing children, Rockwood's Photographic Art-tillery Manual and Infantry Tactics (New York, 1874). In 1894 he began printing pamphlets intended exclusively for photographers. One unusual dimension of his interest was a long-term intellectual investment in phrenology as a characterological register. He regularly submitted portraits of sitters of phrenological journals for analysis and wrote articles on physiognomy.

At the end of his life, his studio records indicated that during the course of its fight-eight years of activity, over 350,000 individuals had been photographed by "Rockwood & Co." From the first he viewed himself as a general portraitist, shooting the public as well as celebrities. His operators handled most of the common trade from the mid-1870s onward. His own camera work in the last decade of his life exclusively concentrated upon artistic portrayals of children.

NOTES: "George G. Rockwood Dead," Americana 6 (New York: American Historical Society, 1911), 921-11; this obituary however contains some erroneous detail. "Our Illustration," The Photographer’s Friend 3 (1873), 15. "Burnt-In Photography on Glass," American Architect and Architecture 37 (1892), 54. George G. Rockwood, "The Vandyke Style in Portraiture," Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin 28 (1897), 290. David S. Shields/ALS

Specialty: 

Rockwood’s portrait aesthetic changed during the course of his lifetime. Initially, he employed the old characterological portrait style of Jeremiah Gurney for non-theatrical celebrities. For children and young women he tended toward generic, allegorical, or narrative framings of the image. For theatrical portraits, he followed the Sarony method of suggesting the range of mimetic possibility in a performer with multiple portraits varied in pose, setting, dress, and expression. In the 1890s, when pictorial aestheticism came into vogue, Rockwood realized that he needed to simplify his image, temper his toning, and subordinate his background; he referred to this new aestheticized depiction, in his 1897 article, "The Vandyke Style in Portraiture." A special premium was paid to the modeling of the head in this "ultra-artistic" style. He considered the Montreal portraitist James Inglis the master of this technique.