A search through the annals of Houston's photographic history produces no noticable tremors of excitement. The text of a talk given at HCP last fall by a member of the Photographic Collectors of Houston.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Houston had no famous photographers, no famous galleries. In fact, from a photographic point of view, nothing memorable happened in Houston between its founding in 1837 and the end of the century. What Houston did have was a series of mediocre photographers who tried to subsist on what meager photographic work they could rustle up. In this it was no different from most other towns; it was only in the largest of towns that one could expect to have one's image taken by anyone other than a run-of-the-mill photographer, unless one of the better known practitioners decided to stop off in your town for a few days on his travels.
The first mention of a photographer in Houston was in an 1851 edition of the Houston Telegraph. J.H.S. Stanley is known to have had a Daguerreian gallery in a building on Main Street, vacated by the Telegraph itself. Stanley operated through the 1850s and by 1866 had left behind the wonders of the Daguerrotype (by now out of vogue, even in the South) and had become simply a "photographic artist." This is the last we are to hear of Mr. Stanley.
During the 1850s, there were only two or three photographers working in Houston. Some had partners or affiliated galleries in Galveston, either because there was insufficient money to be made in Houston, or because there was more money to be made in Galveston. During this period, the other photographers mentioned include G. W, Robbins, S. Anderson, R. E. Moore, and Bickel.
The 1860s gave prominence to such companies as J. P. Blessing & Bros., The Houston City Photograph Gallery, Ashley's City Gallery and The Galveston Photographic Co. At that time it was quite acceptable to combine the profession of photographer with another (or others). Blessing for example was not only a photographer but also a "dealer in supplies" and T. G. Patrick was not only a "photographic artist" but also a "dealer in groceries," an interesting combination. I assume that when the rural dwellers came to the big city to shop for goods they were grateful to have the opportunity of having their likeness made while buying their grain and nourishments.
Notable throughout this period is the rapidity with which photographers developed and then disappeared, and how quickly one building changed ownership as the latest "practitioner of the art" tried his hand at developing a few plates. On reflection, however, this is not surprising since, if the building were already outfitted with the requisite skylights, darkroom and other equipment, why go to the expense of renting or buying another building, and have to start from scratch?
A case in point is the building at 85 Main Street, between Prairie and Texas, opposite the Capitol Hotel, In 1882 it housed A. L. Wasburn. By the end of that year he had been superseded by John R. Archer, the manager of the New York Photographic Co. I know not whether the demise of the New York Photographic Co. was due to the lack of photographic business in Houston at the time or to the "damn Yankee" syndrome, but the N.Y.P. Co. made way for S.E. Jacobson in 1884. He was followed by Samuel Anderson in 3886. Anderson appears to have been the most successful operator at this location remaining there until 1892, when he moved to 403½ Main, where he remained until at least 1900.
There is no further mention of No. 85 Main Street. This can be accounted for by a couple of reasons. Either there was a general move further south on Main Street by the photographic community (there was a growth of galleries during the 1880s in the 400-500 blocks of Main), or the city changed its street numbering system during 1891. I have yet to verify this alternative.
Most of the photographers I found had studios on Main Street. Progressing up Main were: C. J. Wright 82-84 Main (in 1886), W. H. Leeson at 89 Main (in 1880), J. P. Blessing at 63 Main and at 92 Main (in 1867), S. Gallway at 92 Main (in 1870), W. H. Leeson at 111 Main (in 1879) and at 113 Main (in 1877). This move down Main Street came during 1891-2. In that year, S. Anderson moved to 403½ Main, Guy & Cooke set up at 501½ Main, C. C. Deane moved to 507½ Main and C, J. Wright moved to 502½ Main. In 1895 Jones & Meacham were at 1009 Main while B. S. Mattocks took over from Deane in 1897 at 507½ Main. In that same year, G. A. Okerlund began his studio at 719 Main.
Few were the companies that could afford the luxury of having studios in more than one location. In 1867, J. P, Blessing & Bros, had studios at 63 Main (upstairs) and on the ground floor of 92 Main, so, if you had problems climbing the stairs at No. 63, you only had to walk a few blocks to reach No. 92.
As most photo studios were situated at the top of buildings, because of the light needed, it became a concern of some photographers to ensure that their clients did not have to climb too many stairs to reach their studio. So concerned were some of them that they advertised on the back of cartes de visites or elsewhere that they were "only up two flights." With the more widespread use of the elevator, this too became another feature which could make your studio stand out from the one next door, so photographers also began to advertise that they were in a building which had these hydraulic or steam powered contraptions.
Small town photographers had to cling to anything which would make them stand out from the others. This was becoming harder and harder to achieve since there were numerous practitioners who took "acceptable" likenesses and few had the artistic qualities or celebrity of a Sarony, Mora, Brady, etc.
The expansionary desires of the Blessing Bros. were short lived, for in 1870 they had moved to the corner of Main and Congress and had given up their two previous locations. By 1886, however, Blessing also had a Photo Supply Store at 60-62 E on Post Office, in Galveston. Other companies large enough to have branch offices included Barr & Wright in 1877 with a studio at the corner of Main and Preston and one on Congress, between Main and Travis, and C. J, Wright in 1886 at 82-84 Main and at 77 Congress. Most however confined themselves to one location, or in the case of some itinerants to cars or tents.
In 1854 S. Anderson operated out of a Daguerreian car. As this is the first mention of Anderson in Houston, it is possible that he was an itinerant photographer and was just seeing what Houston had to offer, financially. In 1892, Thomas Blisard operated in a tent in the fifth ward at 1006 Willow. Neither lasted more than one year in Houston (although Anderson returned), but this was typical of the life of the "photographer errant."
Another photographer is documented as working out of a tent at 1210 Fannin. His name was Alphonse Giroux. Whether he took on this name to emulate the famous French manufacturer of Daguerre's cameras, or whether this was indeed his real name, I know not; however, the first mention of him is in 1889 when he was a "tin type artist" working at the North side of Fannin near S. Jacinto. In 1892 he moved to 1113 Fannin and remained there until 1897, when he moved into a tent for the last year he was to be in Houston. One could assume that as business declined, M. Giroux was forced out of a building, into a tent and then into oblivion.
With the expansion in numbers that the photographic trade experienced during the 1890s came the introduction of the Photo Supply Houses. Other than S. T. Blessing in Galveston in 1886 there does not appear to have been another establishment set up specifically for photographic supplies. One would probably have had to go to a general supply dealer, or to the nearest large town. In 1895, G. W. Heyer (a former druggist) opened a Photo Supply Store at 617-619 Main. He was joined in 1897 by Bozant and Roff al 719 Main who were to disappear two years later. By 1900, Heyer had moved to 613 Main and two other firms had opened, A. E. Kiesling had opened at 502 Main, and B. K. Rering Supply Co. at 1015 Texas.
The 1890s was the most active photographic period in Houston's history with a maximum of eleven photographers operating here in 1897. The small number of photographers operating in the other years (between one and six) can only mean that there was insufficient business to support any more.
Houston's photographic history contains no startling revelations. There were no great discoveries which took place here, no outstanding photographers, no memorable studios. The story of the development of photography in Houston is the story of the development of photography in Anytown, USA: average practitioners taking average likenesses for an undemanding populace.
By Paul Gai Vani