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David H. Anderson

Time Period: 
Richmond, New York City


D.H. Anderson began his career during the daguerrean era, exposing his first plates in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1855. A restless spirit, he moved from city to city in the South and Midwest before fixing upon Richmond, Virginia, as a base in 1865. For the next 14 years he operated the most lucrative portrait business in that city, and one of the finest in the region. But he saw from afar the tremendous advances made in the mechanics and aesthetics of photography by northern photographers, particularly in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

Selling his business to Charlestonian George Cook., Anderson chose New York City as his new center of operations, and startled that city’s professional world in 1879 by purchasing and refitting Mathew Brady’s historical studio at 785 Broadway. Anderson realized the symbolic resonance of renovating 785 Broadway for his photographic atelier. He kept the gold gilded ebonized woodwork of the interior because of its gravity and seriousness. He adorned the walls with life-sized crayon drawings and pastels a la Sarony. He hung white draperies because of their "softness and delicacy of tone and minuteness with which every detail is worked out have invariably invoked expressions of praise."

In New York Anderson sought to demonstrate his currency with the latest developments. He was one of the first adopters of Charles Bennett’s gelatin dry plate (announced in 1878), a process that required very little exposure time to secure an excellent picture. Anderson, along with Kurtz, was one of the first "instantaneous" commercial portraitists in the city. When the orthochromatic plates became available in 1889, Anderson prophesied correctly that they would supplant the gelatin bromide dry plates among professionals.

In his portraiture Anderson avoided the deep shadows of the Rembrandt-style photographers, preferring some transparency in shadows and gradated contrast, recognizing that naturally photogenic persons benefitted from the style, having their beauty enhanced. He made use of the best background painters and print colorists, thereby rivaling the most popular theatrical portraitists for finish and elaborateness of décor. In 1901 he followed the migration of studios to Fifth Avenue, occupying 251. He was at that time the oldest active photographer in New York City and the sole operator who had begun his career in the Daguerreotype era. He remained an active photographer until weeks before his death in 1905.

NOTES: "The Studios of America: No. 10.—D. H. Anderson’s Atelier, New York," Photographic Times and American Photographer 13, 524. Richard Edwards, "D. H. Anderson," New York’s Great Industries (New York & Chicago: Historical Publishing Company, 1884), 261. "D. H. Anderson," The Photo Miniature 6, 72 (September 1905), 667-68. Edward Livingston Wilson, Wilson’s Photographics (New York: Edward L. Wilson, 1881), 68. David S. Shields/ALS


For all his involvement in advancing the technical state of the art, his greatest renown among the photographic community lay in an aesthetic development, namely, his reenactment photography wherein he engaged participants to recreate historical actions and events. He began this during the Civil War in the South and repeated this strategy when established in New York. The wild west shows may have borrowed the concept when reenacting recent events in the Indian wars, using actual participants, in their performances. He excelled in large-scale civic portraiture in which hundreds of people stood arrayed to be portrayed. Prints ranged up to twelve feet in length. In addition to photographing massive events and large crowds, Anderson was perhaps the most enterprising recorder of churches and churchmen in New York City during the final decades of the 19th century, printing gargantuan views of interiors and exteriors.