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Henry Rocher

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The one Chicago-based portraitist who competed technically and aesthetically with the major New York camera artists in the 1860s and '70s, Henry Rocher opened his studio at 72 Judd Street in 1862. He would enjoy undiminished success and professional respect until his death in 1887. Only the Chicago Fire of 1871 disrupted his serene reign as the chief portrait photographer in the city. His nephew and disciple, Max Platz, also enjoyed renown after he became an independent artist in the 1870s. From 1863 to 1866 his studio was located on Judd Street; from 1866 to 1871 at the corner of Madison and Clark; the Chicago Fire forced his relocation to 726 Wabash, a site he occupied for 8 years; in 1879 he moved to 81 State, but dissatisfaction with the space prompted a return to Wabash Street; his final studio was at 239 & 242 Wabash on the corner of Jackson, which he occupied from 1881 until his death.

A native of Germany, Henry Rocher learned the art of photography before coming to the United States in 1856. He worked as a bookkeeper for eight years before amassing enough capital to purchase the equipment, supplies, and props needed to run a photographic studio. Like others who aspired to the title Artistic Photographer, he generated pastels and crayons as well as portraits on albumin paper.

A versatile photographer who did scenic views, celebrity portraiture, and genre pictures, he took a central part in the consolidation of a national community of photographers. He belonged to the circle responsible for organizing the Photographer's Association of America in 1880. Though not as intimately involved in the technical transformations in photography being wrought by colleagues such as William Kurtz and George Rockwood, he kept up with the major shifts in practice, abandoning wet-plate photography in the early 1880s and adopting the Beebe Dry Plate as his medium.

Rocher's  most noteworthy innovations, however, had to do with studio design. When E.L. Wilson summarized in 1887 the era's comment on photographic practice in his Wilson's Quarter Century in Photography, he devoted schematic diagrams and an explanation of the layout of the two stories of Rocher's workrooms. One distinctive feature of Rocher’s studio practice was his employment of women as operators. "Miss Gerrity," the Louisville Kentucky photographer of the late 1880s and early 1890s, received her practical tutelage in Rocher's studio. He also trained Charles Wesley Hearn, who was the chief cameraman for A.N. Hardy in Boston before going independent.

James F. Ryder, Cleveland's great 19th-century portraitist, supplied a sketch of Rocher's character in a letter to Wilson's Photographic Magazine: "There was no sham or pretense in him, nor in anything that entered into his work—it was genuine. The furnishings and Fittings; his furniture, his draperies, hangings, rugs, etc., were real. His lenses were the best that could be bought; he called them "his children" and cared for them tenderly, keeping them in a safe which was lowered each night into the basement of the building. Even in collodion days he used for his portrait work rectilinear lenses, which were considered too slow by other photographers." His favorite lens was a Dallmeyer #2 B that he secured from E. & H.T. Anthony of New York in 1866.

NOTES: Chicago Photographers 1847 through 1900 As Listed in Chicago City Directories (Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1958). A.J.W. Copelin, "How the National Association was Started," Snap Shots 25 (Oct 1914), 183-84. "H. Rocher, Photographer" Origin, Growth, and Usefulness of the Chicago Board of Trade (New York: Historical Publishing Co., 1885-86), 303. "Report of Mr H. Rocher," British Journal of Photography (Nov 30, 1887), 572. David S. Shields/ALS


In respect to expression, Rocher was widely viewed as the most artistic portrait photographer of the 1870s, rivaled only by Sarony, whose strength was posing. His abilities earned him exhibition gold medals in Vienna, Amsterdam, London, New York, and Philadelphia in the 1870s. His eminence was such that his work became a kind of benchmark against which subsequent photographers measured the development of the art of portraiture. He enjoyed the unique distinction of having his early images reprinted accompanying a piece entitled "American Portraiture Twenty-Five Years Ago," and analyzed by leading portraitists of the early 20th century. The response proved interesting because it brought to consciousness the change of style from an ideal "that the figure should be surrounded by more or less familiar accessories" to the ideal of "the figure itself."

What was most admired in the images was his ability to use natural light, without deep shadow, to imbue figures with modeling, soft outlines, and texture. In 1877 he noted in a British journal the effort necessary to get the public to accept his style of portraiture. "In regard to the taste of the public: I will say that one or two years ago, I often countered difficulties upon showing the public what we call our 'composition' pictures. Many at that time were too much accustomed to the old stereotyped photographic pose, but now it can be plainly observed that not one out of a hundred want this old-fashioned pose, but gladly accept what I think proper to make for them."