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Studio, Sparks

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Born in New York, son of photographer William Houseworth, Elliott Armor Houseworth (1851-1925) trained as both clerk and cameraman. Sometime in 1871, he traveled with his family to San Francisco. There uncle Thomas Houseworth had won fame for his portrait work, becoming one of the two major forces in the West Coast theatrical celebrity trade. Elliott and William allied with Thomas Houseworth, serving in his studio. Elliott first worked as a salesman. While selling prints and eyeglasses, Elliott absorbed the lens crafting end of his uncle's business.

When Elliott returned to the East Coast in late 1880, he was a fully formed camera artist. Houseworth was hired by Emil Scholl to be chief operator for the 112 W. 9th Street sitting room of Scholl Studio, Philadelphia. Scholl installed Houseworth as a poser and left him in charge of non-theatrical celebrities and society sitters. Walt Whitman sat for him in 1881. When the restless Scholl determined to move to Chestnut Street, Houseworth offered to buy the premises. He set up an independent photographic business under the name Sparks Studio where his primary departure from the aesthetics of his employer lay in his avoidance of background paintings. He made clear to his sitters that he would not pander to anyone's desire to have a fanciful glade looming behind their heads. Consequently the great majority of surviving performer portraits by Sparks Studio show a blank wall behind the subject. The studio remained in operation until 1887, when Houseworth found it more remunerative to brand himself as an optician and set himself up in the lens trade.

Houseworth's career shifted permanently to optics in 1887. He remained in Pennsylvania until the end of the century, then moved to South Framingham, Massachusetts, to partner in United American Opticians. He retired in 1915, fell ill, and became a patient at the Massachusetts State Infirmary in Tewkesbury. David S. Shields/ALS