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Louis Thors

Time Period: 
1870-1906
Location: 
San Francisco
Biography: 

(1841-1910)

Born in Amsterdam into a Dutch family claiming descent from miniature painter Gerrit Lundens and retaining a strong interest in the fine arts, Louis Thors received a military education in Paris; he excelled in engineering, draughtsmanship, and cartography. Brother Joseph trained as a painter in Dusseldorf, becoming a talented landscape painter of the Birmingham School in Great Britain. The family lost its fortune in the financial crisis of 1866, occasioning its removal to the Netherlands Antilles. There Louis Thors joined them, abandoning a naval career to serve as a colonial functionary in the later 1860s. In 1869 he set off for California intent on making his own fortune. He attempted cattle ranching and real estate speculation without success. The 1870 U.S. Census listed him as having "no occupation."

His interest in the graphic arts and technology drew him to photography, then undergoing a boom in San Francisco. He worked as a retoucher for I.W. Taber in 1872-73, Thomas Houseworth in 1874, and Bradley and Rulofson in 1875-78, the major photographers in the city. At the last firm he gained comprehensive training in and experience of professional portrait photography. The central lesson that Thors absorbed from his years with Bradley and Rulofson was that style mattered, in imagery, in client relationships, and in the arrangement of the studio. Witty, well-read, and refined, he interacted easily with persons in the arts, society women, and men of business. He attempted to demonstrate that his elegance of person had an aesthetic correlative in his portraiture. When commencing his own business in 1878, he acknowledged his debt to them in his advertising.

Throughout his career, Thors restlessly sought to improve the studio in which he operated. His first premises at 1025 Larkin underwent perpetual alteration with Louis' brother Samuel, a shoe salesman who lived in the building, overseeing construction. The scale of his business grew so large it could no longer be accommodated, so in 1890, he moved to 14 Grant Street. This larger space served adequately as shooting gallery and exhibition space, less so as a storage facility and manufacturing center.

Thors began drawing up his own conception of the perfect studio, and in summer of 1898 moved into his dream accommodation, built to specification in the Phelan Building. Newspaper reporters enthused upon its opening: "On the lower or main floor of the new gallery are situated the reception room, directly connected with the street below by a special elevator erected for the purpose; five dressing rooms, each provided with every facility for which it has been designed; two dark rooms, an office, an artist's room, a finishing room, a fire proof negative vault in which are stored over 120,000 negatives, and a retouching room. All of these apartments are spacious. . . . The reception room is probably the most elaborate of its kind ever designed. It is over a hundred feet square, twenty feet high, with an art-stained glass dome directly in the center over twenty feet in diameter. The decorations consist of a magnificent contrast of Egyptian red and black, the wall frescoing being of the former tint, and the heavy woodwork of the latter." Once installed in his palace, Louis Thors enjoyed recognition as an eminence in his craft. He was elected Vice-President of Benjamin Falk's Copyright League, the national lobbying organization on behalf of photographers' property rights, and in 1904 was elected president of the California Professional Photographers Association.

Thors' reign of glory ended with the 1906 earthquake. It destroyed his studio, his archive, and his home. He moved to St. Louis for two years working as a travelling salesman in the western United States for the Artura Paper Company. In 1908 he returned to San Francisco, reopened a studio, but cancer robbed him of his energy. He died in 1910.

A greater talent than his local rivals, namely Theodore Marceau and John Bushnell, Thors was the one San Francisco performing arts photographer who vied in artisty with Falk, Sarony, Chickering, Morrison, McIntosh, and Bacon at the turn of the 20th century.

NOTES: "Mr. Thors Passes Away," Camera Craft 17 (1910), 285. "The Call's Portrait Gallery: Prominent Citizens Well Known in the Community—Louis Thors," San Francisco Call (Mar 22, 1891), 12. "The Art of Photographing," San Francisco Call (Dec 21, 1890), 16. Notice, The Photographic Journal of America 27 (1890), 608. "Thors's Elaborate Studio," San Francisco Call (Aug 17, 1898), 13. "Louis Thors on the Road," Camera Craft 15 (1908), 352. David S. Shields/ALS

Specialty: 

His taste in background paintings, props, and accessories favored architecture over ornament. He observed of women's portraiture, "the effectiveness of a picture is produced by the plainness and simplicity of the dress; that the lines must be kept clear; that too much ornamentation is fatal to a good effect." He understood intimately the particular advantages of theatrical photography over society portraiture: "Actresses always make the best pictures. So many ladies want to be photographed in this or that actress' pose. Now, the reason that the actresses make such good pictures is that it is purely a matter of business with them; no false delicacy enters into the operation. They are accustomed to pose, and they are in the habit of obeying the directions of the stage manager. Consequently they bring more 'pose' intelligence to bear than the other can possibly do."

Thors shot performers as persons and as characters; when depicting a character, Thors made a point to view the play or opera in which the character operated. While a performer taking a character portrait came to the studio carrying full regalia, Thors prohibited the application of any make-up because of the camera's tendency to make it overly conspicuous.