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Studio, Bradley and Rulofson

Time Period: 
1850-1878
Location: 
San Francisco
Biography: 

Henry William Bradley (1813-1891) and William Herman Rulofson (1826-1878)

North Carolinian H.W. Bradley came to California in the Gold Rush and opened a photography studio in 1850. Rulofson, a native of Canada, also came to California in 1849, prospecting in Sonora. He began photographing miners in 1850 from a mobile daguerreotype wagon in Sonora and opened an office/studio in that district that he oversaw for a decade. In 1861 he joined in a partnership with Bradley.

The two men could not have been more temperamentally different. Rulofson had a violent temper, a lewd streak, and a Bohemian disregard of civil convention. Bradley was a painstaking technician, with a fatalistic tendency, and a ferocious work ethic. Bradley’s fortitude best showed when his first gallery on Montgomery Street burnt down on May 4, 1851. Within weeks, he opened a gallery on Clay Street offering colored daguerreotypes. During the 1850s, he found he earned more supplying photographic materials to his rivals and the itinerating cameramen recording western scenery and the gold camps. He moved restlessly over the city, at times presiding over a gallery and a stock depot. Stability came when he connected with Rulofson and purchased the Vance Gallery on Montgomery Street. While Rulofson managed the portrait gallery, Bradley oversaw the photographic materials business and a growing publishing enterprise (in imitation of rival Thomas Houseworth).

The Bradley & Rulofson studio—"The Photographic Art Gallery"—at Sacramento and Montgomery Streets became a palace of luxury, known for its two hydraulic elevators, immense mirrors, thick pile rugs, grand piano, and its life-size half-length portraits of divas and darlings lining the gallery walls. As manager of the portrait sessions throughout the 1860s and early '70s, Rulofson was the creative force behind the enormous images.

Rulofson’s skill as a photographer received recognition in professional exhibitions, and the prestige of the studio advanced considerably when they issued Edward Muybridge’s scenic views of Yosemite. In 1874, when the National Photographers's Association convention saw two competing factions wrestling for the organization's presidency, the fame and independence of Rulofson made him an ideal compromise candidate.

Rulofson photographed all of the itinerating royals, generals, statesmen, scientists, and men of letters who sojourned in San Francisco. He also photographed the theatrical companies who stopped in California. When the gallery issued a Celebrity Catalogue in 1878, the inventory ran to fifty-one pages. Furthermore, the visual accoutrements available for sitters at the Bradley & Rulofson studio were interesting in ways far beyond those of other high end portrait studios. Bradley was able to import state of the art Lafayette W. Seavey props and backpaintings. Oriental objects from the China trade likewise abounded.

Rulofson was killed from a fall off the gallery roof in 1878. An imbalance of revenue to expenditure forced the gallery to relocate, and eventually forced it to close.

NOTES: Peter E. Palmquist & Thomas R. Kalbourn, Pioneer Photographers from the Mississippi to the Continental Divide (Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 2005), 123-24. [Mark Twain], "Photograph Galleries," The Buyer’s Manual and Business Guide (San Francisco: Francis & Valentine, 1872), 7-8. Benjamin E. Lloyd, "The Camera Obscura," Lights and Shades in San Francisco (San Francisco: A.L. Bancroft & Co. 1876), 420-21. Bradley & Rulofson’s Celebrity Catalgoue (San Francisco: Bradley and Rulofson). David S. Shields/ALS