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Buffalo Bill's Wild West WarriorsA Photographic History by Gertrude Käsebier
By Michelle Delaney
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Michelle Delaney
All right reserved.
A photographer's life and work
While gertrude käsebier ranks as one of the most important american photographers of her time, few publications have focused on her life and the breadth of her work and legacy. many americans today know little of her extraordinary career as a prominent woman in American photography. She worked for more than twenty years as a commercial portrait photographer of influential Americans and Europeans—statesmen, socialites, industrialists, artists, and authors. As the art historian William Innes Homer observed, "Her contribution to portrait photography revolutionized the medium and influenced countless practitioners in her own time and in later decades."2
Married and the mother of three, Käsebier established an independent career, using her professional studio and finished prints to advance the acceptance of photography as a fine art. Gertrude Käsebier achieved much in her private and professional life, while remaining devoted to motherhood and family. Her portraits and photographs are expressive, reflecting an interest in her subjectsas individuals. Käsebier biographer Barbara L. Michaels appropriately emphasizes the two basic themes of the photographer's work: independence and solitude.3 Photography provided Käsebier the means for an independent professional life and artistic achievement.
Käsebier's life was an unlikely journey from a childhood spent in the Gold Rush camps of Colorado to the dynamic world of modern art in earlytwentieth-century New York City. Born Gertrude Stanton in Fort Des Moines, Iowa, in 1852, she contracted scarlet fever at the age of three, causing permanent hearing loss in one ear. Her parents, John W. and Muncy Boone Stanton, moved the family to Colorado Territory in 1859, during the Gold Rush. Traveling by covered wagon, the family endured the hardships of nineteenth-century life on the Great Plains—harsh weather extremes, fear of Indian attacks, and separation from earlier homes and friends. John operated a sawmill and, in 1860, was elected mayor of the mining town of Golden in the Colorado Territory.
Despite their remote locale, the Stantons attempted to provide well for their children, Gertrude and Charles, her older brother. Hoping to inspire a career for her daughter in music, Muncy Stanton arranged for the purchase and shipment of a piano for Gertrude. But Gertrude's vivid imagination and general curiosity led her instead toward drawing and sketching. Lacking children her own age to play with in camp, Gertrude was often alone. From oral histories it is known that, occasionally, she was allowed to play with Indian children from local tribes. And, at Christmastime, her Indian neighbors presented her with beaded gifts, which she cherished much more than the gold nuggets she received from the miners.
In 1864, as the Civil War made settlers' lives even more difficult, the Stanton family moved east to Brooklyn, New York. John gained work as a refiner of sodium carbonate, which he brought with him from the Colorado Territory. Muncy took in boarders for extra income. From 1868 to 1870, Gertrude was sent to live with her grandmother in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. There she attended and graduated from the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies. She then rejoined her mother in New York.4 Gertrude's family life, especially the influences of her mother and her grandmother, had nourished an independent strength in the young woman while simultaneously reinforcing the values of marriage and motherhood.
On May 18, 1874, Gertrude married Edward Käsebier, a shellac importer from Wiesbaden, Germany, and a tenant in the Stantons' house in Brooklyn. The following year their son Frederick William was born. A daughter, Gertrude Elizabeth, arrived in 1878, followed by Hermine Mathilde in 1880.
While both were devoted to their young family, Gertrude and Edward had little else in common. Her recollections about her acceptance of Edward's marriage proposal refer to his "good legs" rather than an overwhelming love.5 The Käsebiers lived comfortable, if somewhat separate, lives in a succession of homes in Brooklyn and metropolitan New York, often with hired staff to assist Gertrude. Edward did not share his wife's interest in the arts, but he willingly paid for her to attend art school when their children were older. And when Gertrude enrolled in Brooklyn's Pratt Institute to study portrait painting in 1889, Edward agreed to move from their home in New Jersey back to Brooklyn. Gertrude graduated four years later, but remained enrolled for another two years of study at the art school. During that time she also enjoyed summer excursions to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and Europe while chaperoning Frank Vincent DuMond's Pratt art classes studying in Paris and Crécy-en-Brie, France, in the summer of 1894.
Gertrude's growing fascination with photography transformed her life as she applied her classical art training to the new medium. Her Pratt instructors attempted to dissuade Käsebier from pursuing her interest in photography—even from taking a camera to Europe—but each successful photograph reinforced her desire to continue. Arranging for her daughters to spend time with their grandmother Käsebier in Germany, she apprenticed in photography with a German chemist. This period of study provided Käsebier a strong technical foundation for her artistic achievement.6
When back in New York City, Käsebier began her professional career. She apprenticed for a short time with Brooklyn photographer Samuel Lifshey, and opened her first New York City photography studio in 1897. The additional exposure to the New York art world, camera clubs, and many photography journals published at the time readied her for the professional career.
In her professional and personal work, Käsebier incorporated elements of Japanese art taught to her at Pratt by Arthur Wesley Dow: simplicity, harmony, and flat pattern. Käsebier's decoration of her studio, and the atmosphere she created, suggest the kind of art she wished to make. Art historian Elizabeth Hutchinson's research documenting the studio correctly links the simplicity of the décor to the Arts and Crafts movement in America at the turn of the century. Käsebier's studio featured hardwood floors, plain muslin curtains, and furnishings that were simple, elegant, and not theatrical.7 Käsebier's first solo exhibitions of photography were held . . .
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