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Anytime I buy an encased photograph, I’m tempted to take the photo out of the case. I’ll admit, this is not always the best thing to do. If the photo is wedged in too tightly, I won’t risk damaging it. But if I think I can get it out, I usually go for it. You never know what you’ll find behind a photograph. Sometimes it pays off. 

This tintype depicts a stern, distinguished man with a severe case of strabismus. The photograph is not exceptional in quality. It’s a very basic headshot with a blank background. Furthermore, the blue cloudy patches in the emulsion are evidence of solarization, meaning the plate was overexposed. But what makes this photo especially interesting is the information behind it. 

Stiles P. Armsbury, Artist.

Adams, NY. Oct. 22, 1863

A bit of research reveals that Stiles is not the man in the tintype, but the man behind the camera. Stiles P. Armsbury was born in 1825 in Petersburg, New York. He moved to Adams, New York and set up a photography studio, the Excelsior Gallery, in the Dodge Block. The Northern New York Business Directory lists him as a photographer in 1867-68. The date on my tintype shows that he worked as a photographer in Adams even earlier. As of August, 1874, the Jefferson County Journal lists two daguerrean galleries in the village, one belonging to Armsbury, the other to Mr. H.H. Hose. It’s interesting that the photography studios are referred to as daguerrean galleries. By the 1870s, daguerreotypes were long considered passé. Tintypes would have been the most popular medium for encased photographs at that time. I suppose this speaks to how long the studios had been in operation. 

I especially love the fact that Armsbury labeled himself an artist in my photograph case. With so much historical debate as to whether photography is an art or a science, it is valuable to see what photographers of the period considered themselves. Armsbury’s photo finishes also contribute to this idea. One could purchase a photo varnished in “German,” “Italian,” “Grecian,” or “Rembrandt” style. 

Advertisement from the Adams New York Herald, 1877.

Stiles P. Armsbury was quite the character. He claimed to patent “Armsbury’s Improved Background,” which supposedly enabled him to take a picture without taking the background. I’m not entirely sure what this means, let alone if it was possible. Maybe that is why the background in my photo looks so plain. However, I do know that I was unable to find any evidence of Armsbury’s patent application or approved patent. He was involved in a legal suit at one point. Perhaps someone tried to infringe upon his non-existent patent!

Nevertheless, Stiles seemed like a man with big ideas. An 1880 City and Vicinity snippet in the Watertown Daily Times mentioned that he “contemplate[d] writing a book.” He was also the local agent for selling monuments.

Stiles P. Armsbury died on August 25, 1895 after failing health from a paralytic stroke seven months prior. His obituary is the most telling piece of evidence about his character. It states that Armsbury was “possessed of many bright qualities of mind, yet there seemed to be a lack of application or connection which unfitted him to take the position in the world which his talents really merited.” Ouch!

Although there is little credited to Armsbury’s name today, at least his signature remains behind my photograph.