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Joseph W. Gehrig

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The Chicago-based photographer of celebrities and performing artists was born in Switzerland, and came to the United States at age three. He lived with a relative, John Poots, while serving his apprenticeship in photography under Henry Rocher.

His first studio in Dubuque, Iowa, proved his business acumen in the mid-1870s. Briggs L. Rider, a veteran of the Daguerrian era, whose Chicago studio was located at 335 West Madison invited him to become junior partner in his establishment. The partnership of Rider and Gehrig lasted three seasons, from 1876 to 1878, before Gehrig decided to return to independent status in 1879. Gehrig based himself next door at 337 Madison which would serve as his base until his retirement.

Gehrig possessed several traits that endeared him to colleagues and employees. He was generous, given to praise, curious, and entirely lacking in temper. He loved to work and communicated his enthusiasms to everyone near him. He had a singular gift for intuiting talent in aspiring photographers. His assistant operators include some of the most talented portraitists of the late 19th century. In 1880 he recruited Australian Walter H. Barnett, then engaged in an itinerant apprenticeship at the studios of significant photographers in the United States and Britain. When Bernett left (he would eventually open the artistically innovative Sydney branch of the Falk Studio), his place was taken by the equally talented Californian, Edward L. Fowler, who served as Gehrig’s second in command from 1881 to 1886.

Gehrig's collegiality and industry made him the ideal association man. Before he had been in business four years in the city, he was elected Vice President of the Chicago Photographic Association. He would hold offices in a host of local, regional, and national bodies during his lifetime. His national reputation arose from his success as an exhibition portraitist. In 1886 Gehrig won a gold medal for portraiture at the St. Louis Convention of the Photographers Association of America.

There are a few curiosities of style in Gehrig’s portraits—foremost was his disinclination to have his sitters's eyes engage those of the viewer. His studio props and backpaintings suggested old world aristocracy rather than American urban energy. Celebrity portraiture constituted a sideline of Gehrig's work. As a society photographer, he followed Rocher's habit of surrounding a sitter with props emblematic of class and accomplishment.

With the death of Max Platz in 1894, Gehrig and Windeatt jointly took over the negative archive, equipment, and client list. The partnership lasted until 1897 when Gehrig dissolved the arrangement. From 1897 until his retirement in 1905, Gehrig pursued Society portraiture more than celebrity sittings. He left off business a relatively wealthy man.

NOTES: "Death of Former Dubuquer," The Telegraph Herald, (Feb 17, 1915), 12. The Photographic Times vol 24 (1894), 175. "The Prizes Awarded at the St. Louis Convention," Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin 17 (1886), 391-92. David S. Shields/ALS