Jeremiah Gurney (1812-1886) did not much concern himself with depicting stage personalities until his partnership with son Benjamin Gurney (1833-1899) from 1860-1874. One of the founders of the photographic profession in the United States, Jeremiah Gurney pioneered most of the practices of studio organization, advertising, and finance. He learned to create daguerreotypes from Samuel F.B. Morse, invented the exhibition gallery, and experimented with the creation of paper prints, holding the patent for a version of the Talbot process dubbed the Chrystalotype. He acquiesced to the fashion for small carte de visites promoted by his one time partner, C.D. Fredericks, and his rival Abraham Bogardus. Benjamin urged that larger images be made of important people. Gurney's "carte imperiale" of 1866 established the format of the cabinet card. Benjamin may have also been responsible for the move into the accommodating building at 707 Broadway.
During the Civil War, Benjamin Gurney assumed active control of producing all the imagery produced by the partnership. He personally took the most famous images of that period—the open casket photographs of the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, the iconic portrait that novelist Charles Dickens used for publicity during the final decades of his life. In response to the success of C.D. Fredricks, Gurney also expanded the portraits to include performers—opera singers foremost, but ballet dancers, tragedians, and the occasional beautiful ingénue as well. Most were shot in intensely clear focus in settled poses. The earliest imperial cartes of performers of 1867 and 1868 were deposited in the copyright office in Washington, D.C. for protection, though such protections had not been granted to photographs by the courts.
Benjamin's earliest performer portraits treated backgrounds in a manner similar to that of his father's daguerreotypes. A neutral blank wall suggested heads floating in indeterminate space. A wrinkled drape might impinge from the left border behind a figure standing upright or leaning on a chair or pedestal. In the mid-1860s heeding the latest French fashion in photographic portraiture, the Gurneys purchased their first back paintings, that of a large interior window alcove positioned to the right of a bare wall, a terrace, lake and mountain, a forest glade, a hilly countryside, and a flower bedecked window to the right of a dimly viewed wall with swatches of visible floral wallpaper. Most of the full-figured portraits of dancers and actresses of the early 1870s were shot before one of these five backgrounds with a variety of props and furnishings introducing pictorial novelty.
Great historical interest has attached to the series of portraits of performers from the early extravaganzas—"The Black Crook," "The White Fawn," and "The Devil’s Auction"—in which costumed dancers appear before painted landscapes. These were not tableaux, Sarony would pioneer that genre in the mid-1870s, for the backgrounds did not reference the locales in the performance. But they did suggest that the visual world as presented was not mundane reality.
In 1860, the year Gurney and Son was formed, the firm advertised the following forms of portraiture to the public:
PHOTOGRAPHS, of all sizes, from Miniature to Life size, finished in Oil, Pastel, Water Colors, India Ink, and Crayon, by a corps of talented Artists.
IMPERIAL, retouched and Plain Photographs.
MINIATURES IN OIL, for Beauty, Delicacy, and Finish, are unequalled.
IVORYTYPES.—This new and beautiful style of portraiture (first introduced by Mr. J. Gurney, in New York, and made only at this establishment,) has all the correctness of a plain Photograph, combined with the finish of the most delicate Miniature on Ivory.
DAGUERREOTYPES in the usual artistic styles
PHOTOGRAPHIC VISITING CARS.—The Ladies especially are requested to call and examine this unique and beautiful style of Visting Card, the same as now used by the upper circles of society, and is the mode in Paris and London.
STEREOSCOPIC PICTURES.—Messrs. Gurney & Son are now prepared to give their attention to making groups of Families, or single persons, at the Gallery, or by appointment, to visit private residences, having everything suitably arranged for making groups in the Parlor or Garden. Views of Buildings,, Animals, Statuary, or in fact anything the in Stereoscopic line of picture, can be executed in the most truthful manner, to suit the most fastidious. The largest collection of Photographs of Statesmen, Divines, Poets, Literary and Military Men, to be seen in the world.
A decade later, in 1870 and with Benjamin's influence, the Imperial portrait ruled, with stereoscopic images and painted large format pieces taking up the rest of the business. The Ivorytype was no more. The cartes de visite were on their last legs. The Daguerreotypes were no longer offered. Pictures of performers—unmentioned in 1860—stood second to portraits of heroes of the Civil War in terms of salability.
In 1874 Gurney & Son dissolved as Jeremiah traveled to Europe for a several year sojourn. The gallery at 707 Broadway was sold to Jose Maria Mora who made it a temple exclusively devoted to theatrical photography. Benjamin Gurney occupied the C.D. Fredrick's gallery and lived the life of a New York bon vivant until his death.
NOTES: Christian A. Peterson, Chaining the Sun: Portraits by Jeremiah Gurney (Minneapolis: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2000). Alexander Stimson, Express Office Hand-Book and Directory (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books reprint of 1860 edition), 172. David S. Shields/ALS