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Charles Deforest Fredricks

Time Period: 
Cuba, Paris, Manhattan


If Victor Hugo had written a novel about photography, its protagonist would have been C.D. Fredricks. Born into wealth, taken to Cuba as a boy, prevented from attending university by the wreck of his father’s fortunes in the crash of 1837, articled to a mercantile firm, then taken on by a Wall Street bank when scarcely twenty, Fredricks abandoned a promising career in finance to seek fortune in Venezuela. He converted his worldly treasure ($400) into trade goods, but before he departed, some prudential angel whispered in his ear that he should possess some skill to fall back upon in case the worst happened. He sought something unusual, something arcane and nearly magical—photography. He took a course of lessons with Jeremiah Gurney. Fredricks transported his daguerreotype equipment, but found that the local officials would not permit it entry into the country unless he paid an exorbitant duty. This he refused to do.

Then fortune intervened. "Mr. Fredricks was the guest of the principal merchant of Angostura. While he was making arrangements for sending his goods up the river to San Fernando . . . a child of his hospitable friend died. One of the merchant’s clerks had informed his employer of the nature of Mr. Fredrick's daguerreotype instrument, and of its detention at the custom-house. The merchant went immediately to the latter, paid the duty demanded, and had the apparatus sent to the room of his guest. He then asked Mr. Fredricks to take the picture of his dead child." The town assembled to witness the operation, and to the amazement of all, Fredricks successfully took his first portrait, of a dead boy. Everyone in the city desired to have their portraits taken. Fredricks cleared $4000, sent to New York for materials, and decided to travel to Brazil. While descending the Orinoco River his Indian guides abandoned him, taking his equipment. He was stranded in the tropics 20 days before government rescuers found him. He secured passage to the United States.

Fredricks spent a year recuperating in New York before returning to South America with another camera. He traversed Brazil with two American adventurers, trading portraits of inhabitants for horses and arriving in Paraguay with a herd that established his fortune. He met Humboldt’s aide Bonpland with whom he traveled to Buenos Aires. There he was given a jaguar by the Governor of Entre Rios in recompense for an image.

Fredricks was 30 when he next appeared in New York forced out of South America by malaria. He spent several months recuperating and absorbing the latest developments in photo-craft with his old master, Gurney. Then, armed with the latest equipment and technique crossed the Atlantic to set up as a photographer in Paris. He realized that glass plate negatives and paper prints had not yet influenced French photography, so he exploited the greatest advantage of the glass negative—its easy employment in enlarging images. Using an enlarger invented by H.H. Snelling, he blew up portraits to life size and hired graphic artists to finish the results. For six months he raked in cash.

Having perfected the product, he recrossed the Atlantic to launch it upon the American public. He brought with him a half dozen Parisian artists and photographers, briefly entered into a partnership with Jeremiah Gurney in 1853, but discovered that Gurney looked to his son Benjamin, rather than to Fredricks, for new directions in art. He broke off the partnership, contracted for the buildings at 585 and 587 Broadway and set up business for himself in 1855.

Fredricks's time in Paris had made him realize that celebrity was constituted differently in Europe than America. Whereas statesmen, divines, generals, and capitalists dominated the lists of fame in the United States, performing artists—instrumentalists, opera singers, great tragedians held the public attention in Europe. P.T. Barnum's "Jenny Lind" tour of 1850 had suggested the potential for an American interest in performers, but its would be the John Wilkes and Edwin Booth who inserted the player into the center of public interest. Well before the tragic events of 1865, Fredricks had bet that portraits of performers would be where he could distinguish his portraiture from that of his old mentor.

While celebrity was the way to capture the eye of New York City, he knew a highly colored verisimilitude in photographic portraits amazed other people in other places. In 1857 he opened a branch of his studio in Havana, dispatching his protégé, M. Cohner, and a crew of colorists and pastel artists who trained the Cuban generation of the 1860s in the art of tinting images. Many of the people trained by Fredricks studio migrated to New York in the Cuban unrest of the 1860s, forming the backbone of the photographic coloring profession in the city in the post Civil War period.

Fredricks realized that success in photography depended upon a grasp of new ways of securing revenue. He supplied photographic templates for the illustrations in Frank Leslie's Illustrated, the first periodical that made pictures its selling point. He became the American agent of F.R. Grumel, inventor of the photo album, and from 1862 litigated anyone who infringed upon the original patent. The switch in format from the CDV to the cabinet card in 1867 brought an end to this income.

For twenty years Fredricks Studio on Broadway, opposite the Metropolitan Hotel, operated as the largest and most stylish photographic gallery in the city. It conducted a solid business plying the celebrity image trade and civic work. Camera operator John F. Main undertook most of the Magnesium Flash work documenting civic events. His published catalogues paid homage to the veteran officers of the Civil War, placing them first in the ranks of famous—Union before Confederates—then a healthy offering of Divines, before listing his Dramatic Portraits, a category twice again as large as any other.

In 1875 a fire destroyed the Broadway studio. He relocated to 770 Broadway, a four-story photographic palace, outfitted in the modern style, where he trained his son in camera art before retiring and dying in 1894.

NOTES: Benson John Lossing, History of New York City (New York: Perine, 1884), 411-13. Charles DeForest Fredricks, The Photographic Journal of America 31 (1894), 310. "C. D. Fredricks and His Work," Anthony's Photographic Bulletin 17, 1 (Jan 9, 1886), 6-8. David S. Shields/ALS