Wednesday, April 10, 2013

An Easter card arrived today from my dear daughter-in-law Sarah and my loving grand daughter Gracie!  Such thoughtful, wonderful women!  And after all each have been through to still think of their father-in-law and grandpa.  I am truly blessed.

She is the daughter of one of Manhattan's great early merchants, our Sarah is.  In my earliest days of living down state, Charles S. Benson was as much a benefactor to Phebe and I and our little family as he was to become a very close friend and mercantile colleague.  Mr. Benson had begun what would be a long, well established and succesfull career as a grocer and dry goods provider at very much the same time we arrived and I began working in the jewelry and watch repair business.  As I've already indicated, there was many a time when I had little or no money in my possesion.  It was Mr. Benson who extended his helping hand to make certain there was at the very least, food on our table.

Over time, our two family's grew to become quite close and, much like that of my Mattie and John Faris, love blossomed between Ben and Mr. Benson's beautiful daughter Sarah.  On a warm June afternoon in 1860, the two were married.  As a wedding gift and as a sign of my approval for how far he had come in my firm, I announced to one and all that the establishment of J. Gurney would hence be known as J. Gurney & Son.  I don't think anyone who attended the lovely ceremony that day had any thought as to how both marriage and firm would unravel.

Since my bringing him on board three years prior, Ben had proved himself admirably.  He was, to a fault, an eager student and an industrious employee.  Initially, I know it hurt his sense of pride when I insisted he come on in the most menial of capacities.  However, I believed he had put this perceived slight behind him quickly enough and embraced the opportunity to learn and grow which is precisely what did happen.

With my instruction in the science and art of the business along with those of such great photographers as my friend Fredricks, the Pearsall brothers and others in my employ, Ben became an accomplished operator in his own right.  To his credit, he was one of the principals in the enlargement of the carte de visite to that of his very own "Imperial" size portraits which enjoyed a brief run of popularity before cabinet cards came along.

While his photographic skills were certainly accomplished, what Ben began to enjoy the most and what would ultimately cause so much heartbreak to all was the notoriety and the unlimited access to all the city had to offer.  His appetite for both began innocently enough and while concerned, I did indulge him.  He was a young man, newly married and well on his way to a level of success that may some day eclipse my own, I argued with myself.  I must let him make his own decisions.  Still, my concern was never entirely abated.  Even in this seemingly happy time.

Jeremiah Gurney and Ben Gurney carte de visite ca. 1862
Courtesy of Armand De Gregoris

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Contrary to the spurious accusations of my colleagues in the days leading up to the events of April 24th 1865 and directly thereafter, I must defend myself and say I did not dislike Mr. Lincoln.  Indeed, I found him to be an entirely sympathetic and thoughtful man placed in dreadful circumstances.

Year after year, the blood of our countrymen spilled out upon American soil and our president grew weary and old beyond his years and in front of our eyes, if photographic evidence could be testimony to this fact.  As if this was not burden enough, he would bury three of his very own dear children before they could reach manhood.  Contending with the first lady and her madness was still another reason.  All must have weighed heavily on his soul.

I have, like many, heard tales of Mrs. Lincoln and her inconsolation at the loss of one family member after another after another and then obscenely, her husband.  The horrors she has been subjected to in her own right.  I have heard tales of her and Mr. Lincoln's attempts to make contact with their little boys by way of seance, mediums.  I know well of their feelings of not wanting to let go.  Of wanting to believe in something, some means of reaching out once more to my dear Phebe, long in her eternal rest.

Of willing myself to believe in a way of crossing over to the departed.

Ten years had passed and there still was not a morning I did not wake to thoughts of my Phebe.  That long ago winter of '59 and the wicked outbreak of cholera ran throughout Manhattan and the neighboring city of Brooklyn.  In little time, it found it's all consuming way across the threshold of our door on Henry street and after a valiant struggle to persevere, Phebe died in my arms.  I wanted to die with her, having spent days holding her close, praying that the fever would jump across and infect me and leaving her to live.

It was not to be.

January 29th, 1859 New-York Daily Tribune

Days, weeks passed and I was not myself.  All attempts to relieve me of my deep feeling of loss met with little comfort nor respite.  Finally, I resolved to seek solace in attending to my children who had lost even more than myself, the love and devotion of their mother, all too soon taken from them.  While, it was effective, I never stopped loving her and hoping to find some way to make contact with her prior to our everlasting reunion in the great hereafter.

I must admit, like Mrs. Lincoln, my own grief bore upon me my own form of madness lo those so many years on.  Which made it more incredible that, in the spring of 1869, I became embroiled in the trial of Mr. William H. Mumler, a man who purported himself to be a spirit photographer.

Mr. Mumler had been in operation for several years by that time.  His ability to conjure up the spirit of one's departed and invoke them to appear in the sitter's portrait was in great demand.  In fact, Mrs. Lincoln herself was said to have anonymously (so as not to alter the aunthenticity of the outcome) sat for likeness taken by Mumler and, there resting his hand upon her shoulder, was Mr. Lincoln himself smiling benignly down on her.

Enter, the great showman and humbug propagator himself, Mr. Phineas T. Barnum!  Ever desirous of the public's attention, Mr. Barnum and his own various sideshow vagaries were promoted and displayed with the greatest effort towards causing the loudest clamour.  He was a man truly larger than life.  Paradoxically, it was Barnum who contributed to the city's legal charges of deception brought against Mumler.

I wanted to believe, dear reader.  In fact, I entered into the courtroom that day inclined to say as much.  To tell the jury thusly.  That I had seen my loving Phebe's visage once more.  That she stood hovering over my shoulder much like Mr. Lincoln had for his Mary Todd.  While waiting to testify, I looked across the room at Mr. Barnum, his confidence overwhelming.  I wondered how he would hold up if someone so dear to him was to be taken from him.  By chance his eyes met mine and after a moment, I believe I saw something in his countenance change almost imperceptibly.

Maybe he saw the longing that shone in my own eyes even after all those many years.  For at that moment, I saw something similar in his.

April 22nd, 1869 New-York Daily Tribune

Monday, April 8, 2013

"Oh, someone really should run a bullet through that...that vulgar ape!"

Startled from my desk, I rushed to the operating room and there under the skylight stood Maggie Mitchell.  Sunbeams falling upon a mess of red curls, she was dressed in a tattered costume for her celebrated stage role of Fanchon, Miss Mitchell was as fiery and opinionated a woman as I have ever met.  Ben, peering out from behind the camera offered her an encouraging smile until, seeing my countenance of dissatisfaction, disappeared under the operators hood.  I turned my attention on her.

"Miss Mitchell, it is always a pleasure when you grace us with one of your sittings but could you kindly refrain from using such strong language, madam.  We have a long standing policy towards the use of any form of profanity here at our studio."

She thought for a moment and it was then her expression softened and that famous smile that all of American manhood found so appealing and unable to resist settled itself shyly on her beautiful face.  Tenderly remorseful, she apologised.  "Oh Mr. Gurney, I am sorry.  It's just that..."  And as quickly as it was extinguished, the fire in her eyes returned.

Seeking to reason with her I enquired into who could cause her so much grief.  Surely the man was an admirer of hers and thus within her abilities of persuasion?

She looked at me, seething.  "Lincoln." The word emanated through clenched teeth.

There was a time, dear reader, when our martyred and dear president was not as popular as he is today.  In fact, in 1863, the year of this particular visit by Miss Mitchell to my studio, he was very much despised and Miss Mitchell was among the many who felt similarly.

"Miss Mitchell, while my religious upbringing has taught me the futility of war..."  She interrupted me.  "Mr. Gurney, he wants to destroy the south!  To free the slaves!  What little we have left of morality and honor will..." raising her arm and swinging it down emphatically "...come crashing down like Rome!"

For those of you unfortunate to have never seen Maggie Mitchell perform, let me point out, she was magnificent.  As splendid a stage actress as there ever was.  Her timing was flawless and she could add improvisation to any scene asked of her.  Like most men, I found her charming.  Like few, I grew weary at her many moods and often never could tell if she was affecting or sincere.

Attempting to assuage her I reminded her "But Miss Mitchell, our president is a great admirer of yours!  He has said it thus, himself!"  "Surely,..."  I am interrupted once more.

Arms crossed, turning up her nose she admits to me "Mr. Gurney, I could care not a fiddle for his attention!"  "He's a tyrannical lout!"  "A...a...a buffoon!"

Shaking, I turned and closed the door to the operating room.

"Madam!"  "May I remind you..."

Peering at me, she lowers her voice to a conspiratorial whisper "and I am not the only person who thinks he should be done thru."  Her thoughts get the better of her and, as though she's become the only person in the room, her eyes trail off, settling upon the golden sunbeams filtering in through the skylight.

Speaking to herself alone now she smiles and whispers the name.  "Wilkes."

Maggie Mitchell carte de visite, J. Gurney & Son
New York Public Library Photography Collection

Thursday, April 4, 2013

May 1865 Humphrey's Journal of the Daguerreotype & Photographic Arts

The most powerful man in the country during those monstrous days in April, 1865, stared across his desk at me.  His black eyes unwavering and dead.  "Sir, I know all about this assertion of yours, 'historical documentation'.  These photographs..." he looked down at them spread across his desk before continuing and refocusing his attention on me "for you, this is merely a matter of trade."

My heart sank and the dull sound of each beat erupted into that of a clanging bell inside my head.  From my peripherary I saw Ben's movement in his chair, a nervous resettling.  Blessedly, he found the presence of mind to hold his tongue.

There was a saying back then.  A warning to all who lived during the time when habeas corpus was suspended.  It was; Stanton's men come for you in the night.  Simply uttering his name in conversation brought a quiet pause of contemplation and fear.  Edwin Stanton was not simply the Secretary of War, he decided one's liberty if not their longevity.  Edwin Stanton never trifled and he was not a man to trifle with.

Edwin M. Stanton Carte de Visite
author's collection

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Charles DeForest Fredricks

Fredricks!  The mere writing of his name elicits the strongest feeling of bon joie within me!  He was as much an adventurer as he was an artist and, with the first anniversary of his passing near, I think of him and his travels often.  How I miss his letters and when fate would allow, our meetings and his colorful tales.

I first encountered Charles DeForest Fredricks in 1842 or thereabouts.  A young man of 20, the son of a German shop keeper, he was at that time employed in the banking business and by his account, withering on the vine by sheer boredom!  He had of course taken note of the emergence of the new method of portraiture and came to me seeking instruction.

Upon acquaintance, I found his nature to be so affable and direct that I took him on straight away in a part time capacity, finances being as tenuous as they were then.  The balance of his working day being secured at Anthony's establishment in the manufacture of casings for future daguerreotype portraits.

No sooner had our business alliance and friendship taken bond was he off on the first of his many travels!  Indeed, it could be said that Fredricks was, among many of his titles, the first daguerreian missionary!  On that day when many of us saw him off on board a ship bound for Venezuela, he brought with him a camera and equipment necessary to produce the first images ever to be made there and through-out Central and South America!

Year after year, I would receive intermittent but always intriguing letters from him.  Amazing tales of living among the aboriginals and long, arduous days and nights spent in the jungles of the Amazon.  Thievery and river pirates were as frequently reported as those of our own common criminal gangs of the five points and tenderloin districts.  On occasion, he would turn up in New York to recover his health from living in such unhygienic circumstances only to return there once more.

However, despite all adversity, his enterprise did find a way to flourish and before long he had established offices in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Havana, Cuba where his product was judged among the earliest and still to this day, the very best of it's class.

A letter from him arrived in 1852 or '53 announcing his return to New York and we were once again in a partnership!  This however turned out to be as temporary an arrangement as wanderlust got the better of my friend once again and he was off to Paris where he soon set up a studio.

August 1854 Humphrey's Journal of the Daguerreotype & Photographic Arts

While there, he became acquainted with Talbot's ongoing efforts towards advancing our profession and, in 1855, he returned to our partnership and brought with him the crowning achievement of his career, the carte des visite process.

It wasn't very long before these photographic cards were considered de rigueur among one and all.  Always considering the possibilities towards advancement, larger sized cards were brought to market, one of them being the cabinet card in fashion to this very day!

As it is with all well established friendships, the fact that our business partnership dissolved did little to diminish our mutual fondness for one another's company.  By the end of the 1850's, Fredricks' own galleries at 585 and 587 Broadway were among the most frequented and prosperous of any in New York!

His building was as grand as the man who operated it!  An immense edifice to the art!  In fact, that is what he called it - Fredricks' Photographic Temple of Art!  A sweeping, lantern-lit arch announced it as such on the very buildings' exterior!  And to top it all, an eagle sat perched atop a large camera, overseeing the throngs who passed through the threshold and the traffic below.

I have counted many successful men as my friends.  None closer to me than C.D. Fredricks.

Fredricks' Galleries at 585 & 587 Broadway

Saturday, February 23, 2013

"Father?" "Yes, Ben."  "I want to come to work with you."

He was always ambitious, my son Ben.  Always in motion.  As a child he was difficult to photograph as he simply would not be still for the pose.  Nothing seemed to hold his gaze for the time needed to capture his likeness.  Even my gentle admonishments received little attention.

As he grew older, he became more aware of the position of prosperity my profession had brought upon our household.  We lived well.  His sister and he had, within reason, all they could desire.  I say within reason as I did try to raise them in a Christian manner.  Weekly Friends meetings were attended and an attempt at instilling the theology of love and service was endeavored.

Still, the physical wealth was apparent.  The carriages and horses, our homes on Fifth Avenue and Henry Street in Brooklyn, all appointed and outfitted with the latest and finest that New York City had to offer.  Phebe doted on them far too much.  And there was her sister Charlotte and their mother Lavina living with us.  There were Irish housemaids too.  All of them conspiring to coddle and fawn over both Ben and Mattie in the most obscene manner!

I had many a conversation with one and all about the way my children were being attended to and my objections to such.  Nods of acquiescense and assurances of being more stern with them were received and still, within hours, the over-indulgence would continue.  I must confess, I myself had a difficult time adhering to my own rigidity.  Ben was, is my son and Mattie my dearest daughter!  As children and even today, there is not a mean spirited aspect about them and nothing their father wouldn't do to help them.

His request concerned me.  At 20, I had hoped he would continue in his education at the university.  Explore what interested him and have at it with the same level of enthusiasm that had come upon me in the early days of my studies with Morse and Draper.  I said as much to him in reply.

"Father, I want to come to work with you.  I have been to your studios.  I have observed the photographic process with you and your employees.  I understand as well as anyone, the nature of your business.  Who better than your son to bring on?"

My ambivalence surely must have stung him for I saw it on his face and in his reasoning.  Still, a sense of foreboding hung over me.  A fear that life had come too easily for my Ben and the implications of what might arise as a result of it worried me.

If I was to object to his entering into my business, I might lose him altogether.  If I brought him on as he seemed inclined to believe as rightfully befitting, I would further pacify him.

From my study, I sat and looked out my window upon the muted coming and going of hansom cabs and omnibuses making their awkward, twisting way along Henry Street, Brooklyn in the year 1857.

Gazing up into my son's young face and nodding with assent, I suggested he plan on making the morning ferry to 349 Broadway though both he and I would do as much on our own, not together.  There would be no nepotism attached to this position.  No patronage.

It was then that he smiled.  That warm smile that I've seen cross his face in either actual kindness and gratitude or, as in so many instances, whenever he had received his way.  He began to take his leave when I offered a final reproof.

"And Ben, you will be working for me, not with me."

From the 1857 Trow's New York City Directory

Saturday, February 16, 2013

It was Phebe of course, to initially see the changes coming over me and before it was fully recognized for what it was, I very nearly died.

I believe I may have already mentioned the dangerousness of my profession.  In the early days most especially.  The volatility of the various chemicals we daguerreians used combined with the always present oil lamp, stove or other heat source contributed to numerous outbreaks of fire.  In fact, in the very same year my mind and body began to fail me, a fire broke out in the studios of Mr. Whitehurst which I would eventually purchase and renovate for my very own.

Fire had nothing to do with my own infirmity, however.  The source of my ailment was that of a much more insidious nature.  One that provided nothing in the way of fair warning.  None of man's senses could detect it and it came as a result of my obstinant refusal to follow the suggestions that other pioneers in this new venture had been so kind to proffer.

Even my dear old friend and colleague S.D. Humphrey, a fine daguerreian in his own right and one of our earliest editors and advocates for the establishment of our industry had warned me each time he came by my studio at 189 Broadway.  Still I would not listen.  I would like to think this was the last vainglory to inhibit me from my ability to live as my creator would see fit to have me to do so.  I do know a hard lesson was taught and ever afterwards adhered to.

While this occurred in '52, it should be pointed out that the photographic process was, even 12 years on, still in it's infancy.  Changes to methods were always being adopted however the one constant and the one I failed to implement was the need for a ventilating hood in developing the plates over a bath of warm mercury.

It was the mercury or more precisely, the clear, odorless, tasteless vapor of warming mercury.  Hours upon hours.  Days.  Weeks.  Years passed while i stood over the bath of warm mercury, developing my daguerreotypes.  Ignorant of what was occurring to me until the symptoms became horribly apparent.

My years of semi-retirement have provided me with sufficient reading time and lately I have been enthralled by what I read of the advances in medicine and specifically man's attempt to understand the nature of dreams.  This fellow Freud and his colleagues and their interests in what they call psychoanalysis.  All very intriguing to me as I do recall battling a form of madness in the early stages of what I would eventually realize was my mercury poisoning.

I remember early on how easily my attention would wander and how easily frustrated I became.  Headaches, dizziness and forgetfullness plagued me.  It became necessary for me to write copious notes and instructions in order to complete even the simplest of tasks.

I am by nature, as my long list of family, friends and colleagues would I'm certain swear to, fond of company and full of the enjoyment of life and all it has to offer.  This is why, in the early weeks and months of that dynamic year, Phebe began to take note of the changes manifesting within me.

I grew short tempered and withdrawn.  I had no interest in the society of others.  I became the opposite of what I had always been!  What confounded those who I came into contact with was my very own inability to recognize these changes.  I dare say Phebe and all who knew me became convinced I was going mad!

My business, so vibrant up to now, began to fail.  Colleagues much concerned; the Anthonys, Humphrey, Snelling even my new friend and soon to be business partner, C.D. Fredricks, all became concerned.  It was as if the Jeremiah Gurney they had known for years had been replaced by an unruly doppelganger.  I have no doubt that had my symptoms not evolved into that of a more visable nature, I would have found myself committed to the lunatic asylum on Blackwell's Island.

The manifestation to outward physical deterioration did occur however and hideously so.  I will spare the reader the specifics only to say it was grotesque in every sense of the word.  Very quickly, my Phebe and those whom I have counted as my friends and colleagues, then as they continue to be now, were fortified to recognize the symptoms as poisoning by exposure to mercury and sought out my much needed medical assistance right away.

I sit here in the early morning hours of April 1895, looking back more than 40 years ago.  A more humble and grateful servant to my creator, I strive to be.

From the April 15 1852 edition of Humphrey's Journal of Photography

Humphrey's Journal of Photograpy May 1852