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Abraham Bogardus

Time Period: 
New York City


A descendent of the Dutch settlers of the Hudson Valley, Abraham Bogardus belonged to the pioneer generation of photographers, taking his initial lessons in the creation of daguerreotypes from G. W. Prosch in in 1846. He immediately opened a gallery at the corner of Greenwich and Barclay streets in Manhattan. His professional success began in the paper era, when he popularized the carte de visite (cdv) in New York City, making his second studio on Broadway and Franklin Streets a mecca for those wishing to capture their images. In the wake of the Civil War, Bogardus' fame, due primarily to the success of the cdv, earned him election as the first president of the National Photographic Association in 1869, a position he held until 1875.

Of the early portrait photographers who enjoyed popularity in New York, Bogardus had the least acquaintance with drawing and painting. When his rivals began making a selling point of generating crayon, pastel, or watercolor portraits based on photo images, Bogardus felt he had to compensate. He entered into a partnership with the Bendann Brothers on January 1, 1872. As a contemporary commentator reported, "The specialties of Messrs Bendann, combined with those of Mr. Bogardus, will prove to be on of the greatest photographic firms in the country. Messrs. Bendann have won from their beautiful pastille and oil work a reputation world-wide, and no productions by others in this line, will compare favorably with theirs." Bogardus' admiration of the Bendann’s work was so sincere that he studied their technique and took up painting as a pastime upon his retirement. After 1872, his studio bore the brand "Bogardus & Co."

Bogardus thought extensive retouching of images a kind of representational violence. In national venues he spoke in favor of minimal intervention on the negative—"I retouch but very little, just enough to smooth down the rough parts of the picture, and remove the freckles or spots, or anything we want removed, and soften down the heavy lights." For Bogardus, altering some defect of a sitter’s appearance for the better violated the verisimilitude of the photographic resemblance, that very thing that made the image true and valuable. This modesty stood at odds with the aesthetic of Sarony, and particularly Mora, who wished to push celebrity images in the direction of the ideal. For this reason, Bogardus enjoyed a particularly high regard among prominent male sitters. He was the only photographer that Cornelius Vanderbilt allowed to sell his image. Politicians, churchmen, plutocrats, and soldiers reckoned him the reliable artist who could fix their characters on paper.

Bogardus had a second talent that rivaled his skill with a camera. He was an excellent writer, with a familiar plain style, and an orderly way of presenting complex subjects. For much of the 1880s he edited an eight-page monthly entitled The Camera, cherished as a fund of wit and common sense. He contributed frequently to the pages of the photographic journals. He retired from active business in 1887, and spent the remainder of his life restoring daguerreotypes, insuring that the first popular vehicle of "light writing" remained in pristine condition for posterity to experience.

Like most of the successful New York celebrity photographers, Bogardus hired a chief camera operator and a good chemist as a head of his print processing department. In the 1880s these assistants, Charles Sherman and A. Joseph McHugh, were granted a credit line on prints, and in 1889 took over the running of the portrait aspect of the business. This partnership ceased in 1895.

NOTES: "Editor’s Drawer," The Photographer’s Friend 2 (1872), 31. On Retouching. "Tuesday Afternoon," The Photographer’s Friend 2 (1872), 86. Richard Edwards, "Abraham Bogardus," New York’s Leading Industries (NY: Historical Publishing Co., 1884), 113. "A Biographical Note: Abraham Bogardus," The Photo Miniature 6, 72 (Sept. 1905), 664-65. David S. Shields/ALS