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William McKenzie Morrison

Time Period: 
Haymarket Theater, Champlain Building, Chicago


William McKenzie Morrison was the most financially successful theatrical portrait photographer in Chicago during the final decades of the 19th century. Born in 1857 in Detroit, he moved with his family to Chicago at the outbreak of the Civil War. At age ten he began work after school as a gallery boy in a Chicago photographic studio. He graduated from the Metropolitan Business College in Chicago in 1879. For a decade he worked managing several city galleries before founding in 1889 the Haymarket Studio, located in Haymarket Theatre Building in Chicago.

A thorough-going professional, he joined Benjamin Falk's copyright protection league, serving as member of its executive committee through the 1890s. A specialist in celebrity portraits, he was continually striving for finish and effect. He favored light even tonalities that he derived from using Kirkland Lithium paper for his prints and a 3-A Dallmeyer lens. All of his portraits were taken in natural light supplied by the Haymarket's great skylight.

He evacuated the Haymarket premises in 1899, moving to the Champlain building on the corner of State and Madison Streets. He operated only during autumn, winter, and spring, choosing to summer in New Jersey. A real estate developer, landlord, and cattleman, various business interests vied with his art for his attention during the first decade of the 20th century. He left off the photographic business in 1911, turning the brand over to his printer and receptionist.

In 1898 Morrison issued an index to his on-premises illustrated catalogue. This pamphlet indicated that images were available in a range of sizes and prices, cheapest being the cabinet at $.35 (3 for $1.00), the Paris Panel at $.75. 7 x 13 at $1.25, 9 x14 at $1.50, 11 x 14 at $1.50, 14 x 17 at $3.00, 16 x 20 at $4.00 and 18 x 22 at $5.00. These larger sized images were panels—that is silver prints mounted on hard card backings. Though the pamphlet identified the sitters as celebrities, every listed individual was a performer. There were 391 women, 135 men, and several dozen group photographs. The predominance of female subjects indicated clearly what the driving force of this market was: feminine beauty. Among the very few sitters who garnered three sittings: Maud Adams, Viola Allen, Ethel Barrymore, Catherine Bartho, Bessie Carl, Jessie Martlett Davis, Maxine Elliott, Katherine Florence, Molly Fuller, Mary Hampton, Vernona Jarbeau, Grace Kimball, Maude Odell, Adele Ritchie, Lillian Russell, Edna Wallace and the sole male, Otis Skinner.

NOTES: W.M. Morrison, "Feeling and the Feelings," Photographic Mosaics, E.L. Wilson, ed., (New York, 1896), 223-24. "Photographers, Old and New," The Photographic Journal of America 31 (1894), 414. "Our Illustrations," Studio Light 9 (1917), 23. The Complete Self-Instructing Library of Photography (Scranton, PA: The American School of Art & Photography, 1909), 579. David S. Shields/ALS


Morrison's rather intuitive approach to posing was explained in an 1895 article, "How do I do It?" in Photographic Mosaics. "The naturalist acquires his knowledge by observation. So must the photographer." He let the sitter's habits of standing, sitting, and gesturing suggest how the person's image should be captured. In the eyes of his colleagues he must have been a preeminent observer, for in the next year the Photographic Association of America awarded him the grand prize and a diamond medal at its St. Louis exhibition. He amazed the audience by observing, "I want to suggest forcibly that it is better often to catch the suggestions offered by the subject in hand rather than to trust entirely to your art feeling. In the use of this last you must bend sometimes."