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As promised, here is Ryder’s autobiography, Voigtländer and I: In Pursuit of Shadow Catching. It is well-known in the field of photography as one of few autobiographies written by an early photographer. I discovered this book two years ago while working on an assignment for a Histories of Photography course. One of the sources I was using for a paper referenced Ryder’s book. After a simple inter-library loan request, voila! A first edition 1902 copy was mine to borrow. I read it each evening for fun and was shocked to find that Ryder had been to so many places that I had. It was as though I was following in his footsteps. I loved Ryder’s purposeful, yet nostalgic writing style. It was too much to hold a first edition in my hands that wasn’t mine. I had to get my own.

Frantic online searches for the book made me realize I wasn’t going to cheaply find a first edition. I was beside myself. A modern-day reprint just wouldn’t do, not after reading the real thing! I pouted. And wouldn’t you know it, the next day another first edition appeared online…and on sale. I snapped it up.

I’m especially fond of my book for its longstanding Cleveland connection. A few pieces of paper have been left inside the front cover, leaving dark silhouettes on the surrounding pages. The first is a May 8, 1939 letter of inquiry from A.H. Greenly, the Chairman of the Official Classification Committee, to the Burrows Bros. Book Shop in Cleveland. Apparently Greenly wanted a copy of Ryder’s book and the Burrows boys hadn’t followed through in a timely manner. Why A.H. Greenly, a bomb-inspecting man, wanted Voigtländer and I is beyond me. Light reading, I suppose? Anyway, this letter from Greenly seemed to light a fire beneath the Burrows brothers, as the other piece of paper in the book has the scribbled name and address of Ryder’s relative who still lived in Cleveland. Did my book come from this relative upon Greenly’s request?

I guess I was like Greenly in my own right, scrambling to find a copy of Ryder’s book. What can I say? It’s that good.

Today, I’d like to pull some information from Ryder’s autobiography and put my own spin on his experiences in Elyria, Ohio. Ryder settled in the town (now a city) after working his way west from Ithaca as an itinerant. He set up a daguerreotype studio in Elyria in 1849 and maintained business ties there until 1858. In 1852, the building that housed his studio caught fire and destroyed his belongings (including his beloved Voigtländer camera). Despite this traumatic and financially draining experience, Ryder had a soft spot for Elyria. In Voigtländer and I he states:

 My fondness for the beautiful in nature found here much to feed upon. At evening before twilight I found my reserved front seat, which no one else disputed, and enjoyed it to my heart’s content.

On moonlight nights, after “Wils” Ryan, the miller, had shut up shop and gone home, I would lounge on the grass beside the old mill with its great, drippy water-wheel, and enjoy the pleasing rhythm of the falling water, splashing and dripping continuously and soothingly, inducing me to indulgence in waking dreams which led me pleasantly to Ithaca and the old Cascadilla, whose dashing water I so dearly loved.

East Falls of the Black River, Elyria, Ohio. The stair-step stones on the right are the ruins of the old Red Mill. Based on the description above, this was Ryder's favorite vantage point.

And now for the surprise: a daguerreotype from my collection. Written inside the case is “J.W. Dunham. Elyria. Lorain Co., Ohio. $1.00.” With the exception of this portrait, I have never seen another daguerreotype from Elyria. Who was J.W. Dunham? Was this likeness taken by J.F. Ryder and his Voigtländer?

Let’s do a little detective work.    

J.W. Dunham.

We know this man was J.W. Dunham. But who was he, really? There were two in Ohio (as well as a few from other states).

The first is Dr. J. Watson Dunham (1824-1890) from Collamer, near East Cleveland. He was a horticulturist who specialized in grape-growing. He owned several vineyards. Dunham served as president of the Lake Shore Grape Grower’s Association and treasurer of the Ohio State Horticultural Society.

The second J.W. Dunham (1834-1906) was from Hinckley and Berea, Ohio. He was an inventor of farm implements and started the J.W. Dunham & Son Company.

Image courtesy of Miami University Digital Collections. Oxford, Ohio.

Because the two men studied similar topics and lived within 25 miles of each other during the same time period, it is almost impossible to distinguish one from the other; but let’s think a little harder. In the photograph, Dunham rests his hand on a book. This was a classic symbol for scholarship. His top hat on the table and silver-handled walking stick suggest that he was quite the affluent man. If I had to judge his age, I’d guess that he was about thirty at the time this photograph was taken. 

As for the daguerreotype itself, it was set beneath a thick, smooth, nonpareil mat. This smooth style of mat dates to the early 1850s (a stippled nonpareil mat dates earlier). The matted image is encased in a preserver, which dates after 1847. This means that the daguerreotype must be from the early 1850s. Taking this into account, J.W. Dunham of Berea would have been about twenty years old at best. Dr. J.Watson Dunham of Collamer, however, would have been about thirty. Perfect!

Now, did Ryder take the photo? Time to think broadly. In the early 1850s, there were only four daguerreotypists in Elyria: Fred Potter, Charles Park, Edward Wikes, and Ryder himself. Potter was only active in Elyria during the year 1853. As for Park and Wikes, Ryder trained them. I’d say it is likely Ryder had a hand in creating the daguerreotype.

Well readers, that’s the end of today’s adventure. Coming up next: cartes-de-visite!

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