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Sandusky's early photographers

Ron Davidson • Dec 2, 2013 at 3:00 PM

With the advent of point and shoot cameras, cell phone cameras, and cameras on tablets and other digital devices, it seems that everybody is a photographer today (or thinks they are). Of course, this age of digital photography, where crowds of people wave telephones around at every event, minor or major, is a very recent phenomenon. In the not too distant past, a photographer was a skilled technician and a professional in his/her field. In the earliest days of photography, the photographer was an artist, with creative skills both in capturing the photograph and in reproducing the image. (Many painters turned to photography, conceding defeat in the contest for realistic reproduction.) Sandusky has produced photographic artists from the earliest days of photography.   

What we recognize as photography was invented in Europe around 1839. The daguerreotype was the first commercially successful photographic method, with several other formats, including paper prints, arriving soon afterward. While we cannot be certain who the first photographer in Sandusky was, we know a little about some of the earliest ones. It is likely that it took a few years for the daguerreotype to arrive from France to “the West” (as Ohio was commonly referred to at the time), and our records for the period are rather sparse. But in 1855, with Sandusky’s first city directory, the records of people and businesses become much clearer. This directory lists three “daguerreian artists” (the term “photographer” apparently not yet common): R.E. Weeks, J.A. Scott, and J.M. Frisbie, all on Water Street, the primary business district of the time. Each of these men (and photographers were nearly always men until well into the twentieth century) had an advertisement in the directory. Frisbie’s ad filled a page, and mentioned his “immense sky and side light,” and “a good assortment of plain and fancy cases” for protecting and displaying the daguerreotypes. He also promoted his service of taking “pictures of sick or deceased persons taken at their residence, if desired,” a common practice among early photographers.

With the improvements in photographic technology beginning in the late nineteenth century, became able to move out of their skylight studios and take photos outdoors, including action photographs. A.C. Platt and his son Clayton were among the earliest photographers to document scenes of Sandusky and the Firelands, many in a series, “The Isles of Lake Erie.” Despite its name, the series included many views of Sandusky in the 1870s and 1880s, as well as the Marblehead peninsula and other nearby sites. The Platts moved from Oberlin to establish their business in this very photogenic region.

Another photographer who moved into Sandusky around the same time was C.J. Pascoe. Born in Woodstock, Ontario, he migrated via Detroit to Fremont, then to Sandusky around 1880. A photograph of his studio in Sandusky, held in the Sandusky Library historical collections, shows what a typical photographer’s studio would look like at the time.

Of course, we had many more photographers in twentieth century Sandusky. One of the most interesting was Ernst Niebergall, a German immigrant who arrived in Sandusky in the first decade of the twentieth century, and spent the next five decades documenting the region and all the changes it experienced. He was especially interested in documenting the new technology of the era, including airplanes, railroads, automobiles, but he also took a great interest in those living here, both people and animals. The library has a strangely interesting set of photographs of seagulls that Niebergall took mostly in the winter.

And, as I always seem to say on this blog, this is only a very small sample of a broad and important subject in our history. There have been many other professional photographers in the area in the past 175 years, some with very long careers – Bishop, Gainsborough, Alden Wintersteller, just to name a few – and some who worked only briefly and are now unknown. But we are permanently indebted to these people for recording our lives and our histories and those of our ancestors.

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