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George T. Bassett

Time Period: 
Providence, R. I, Fifth Avenue, Manhattan

George T. Bassett (fl. 1885-1922)

George Bassett emerged as a photographic talent in Providence, R. I. working under the auspices of the entrepreneurial Philip H. Rose.  Bassett’s unconventional way of setting up shots and the visual novelty of his images prompted Rose to appoint him chief operator of Ye Rose Studio in 1888-89.  Many of the finest images the appeared under the Ye Rose brand were Bassett’s work.  Ambitious, Bassett desired to make his reputation in Manhattan, the center of celebrity portraiture.  His opportunity came when Edward Dana, on the strength of Bassett’s Ye Rose images, hired him as chief operator for his flagship New York studio.  Though the images that Bassett shot were released under Dana’s brand, the operator’s fame spread nationally.  In a syndicated newspaper story in 1892, he offered advice to fashionable men about how to pose.  Perhaps his most striking observation was the counter-intuitive claim that sitters make a mistake by presenting the best side of their faces to the camera. “If the worst side of your nose is the left, turn that toward the camera, then the picture will take the line of the good side of the nose.  If there is a depression on the left si, for instance, and the right side is turned toward the came, the line of the picture will be the irregular line of the far or left side of the nose.  It seems a little odd that the worst side of the face should yield the best results, but that is the paradox we work on.”

Bassett’s professional reputation was such that in 1893 he was elected vice-president of the Photographers’ Association of America.  Having risen from the ranks of technician and unaccredited operator to a name, Bassett respected the labors of everyone in the studio. Consequently, Bassett proved a strong advocate on behalf of Unionization of studio employees and the protection of laborers rights.  In 1897 he proposed the reorganization of the Photographers Association of America to insure that it recognized unionization.  

Bassett prospered at Dana’s and was given carte blanche in terms of posing and arrangement of settings.  Throughout the 1890s Dana engaged in a dramatic expansion of his business, hiring several operators, certain of which oversaw branch galleries. Dana’s death from cancer in 1897 threw the business into turmoil, with photographer J. D. Griffin attempting to seize control of Dana’s enterprise.  Rather than endure the power struggles with Griffen, Bassett signed on to be a special representative for the Cramer Dry Plate Company, “in which capacity he won the reputation of being the ablest operator in the country.” In 1898 he supervised the darkroom instruction for the American Aristotype Company’s influential “School of Photography.”

In early 1899, Basset set up business for himself, opening a Fifth Avenue gallery, a business devoted “wholly to high-class portraiture.”

From 1899 until 1911, Bassett sustained a studio business combining society portraiture with theatrical work. Performers were attracted to his unconventional treatments and ingenious experiments with natural lighting.  The growing ubiquity of electric illumination in studios over the first decade of the 20th century made Bassett’s natural light trickery seem tamer as each year passed. In 1911, he concluded that his service to photography might better be undertaken on the technical side of the craft, accepting employment with the Central Dry Plate Company “in charge of the Convention work” and acting as its “general representative throughout the United States.”  He labored in this enterprise for four years, when he encountered the talented artist Alice McClure, recently returned from several years studying painting in Paris. McClure restoked the fires of aesthetic ambition, and Bassett consented to serve as president of a studio bearing McClure’s name.  Bassett’s professional savvy and McClure’s artistry made it an important Fifth Avenue celebrity gallery for seven years and an image source for many magazine illustrations.  

Sources:  “The Man of Fashion; Posing by the Rules of New York’s Photographers,” Rochester Daily Republication (January 5, 1892); [About George T. Bassett] Wilson’s Photographic Magazine 36 (July 1899), 314. “The School of Photography,” Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin 29 (1898), 253; “The Distribution of Central Plates,” Camera Craft 18 (1911), 306; Alice McClure, “Breaking in on Fifth Avenue”