Nameless photographers captured Idaho’s history on film

John Cozad represented Ada County in the Idaho House of Representatives in 1866-67. Without this sensitive photograph, Cozad would be just a name.
John Cozad represented Ada County in the Idaho House of Representatives in 1866-67. Without this sensitive photograph, Cozad would be just a name. Provided by Arthur Hart

The photograph is the indispensable tool for recording and preserving the history of a family, a town, a state or a nation. In 1990, as my contribution to Idaho’s centennial celebration, I wrote a book titled “Camera Eye on Idaho: Pioneer Photography, 1863-1913.” The photographs chosen for the book illustrate the history of our state as words alone could never do and record the work of the pioneer photographers who produced them.

Some of the most important historic photographs in library and county historical society collections across the state have been reproduced in books and journals, without crediting their makers. Increasingly we have come to realize the significant contribution to our knowledge of early Idaho made by photographers who recorded people, places and events in nearly every corner of the state.

Idaho was founded during the bloodiest war in American history, and a century and a half later we can understand the magnitude of that conflict, and the human suffering it caused through the work of battlefield photographers like Matthew Brady. He was most famous of the many who recorded the faces of the thousands of young men, Union and Confederate, who died on the battlefields of that war or in its terrible prison camps. They look out at us from small tin-type portraits, their identities often lost.

Few faces express the tragedy of that long and bloody Civil War as does that of Abraham Lincoln. And portraits of Idaho people taken in the 1860s, though far from the battlefields, are also evocative of the time. Who were the earliest photographers in Idaho? Their story is the subject of this and future columns.

Photographers came to Idaho as soon as there were settlements with populations large enough to support them. The discovery of gold in what became North Idaho in 1860 led to the establishment of Lewiston as the principal supply center to the mines. The little town at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers, then a collection of tents and rude wooden shanties, and still part of Washington Territory, was visited by a photographer from Walla Walla in the summer of 1862. On Aug. 2 the Lewiston Golden Age ran an ad for Edward M. Sammes in which he “respectfully” informed the citizens that he had taken rooms on D Street, where he was “prepared to take Ambrotypes, Melaineotypes and pictures of every description pertaining to the art.” He urged persons wanting pictures to call at once, as he would return to Walla Walla in just 10 days. If he ever returned to Lewiston, no record of it survives.

When Idaho Territory was established in March 1863, Lewiston was made capital. In October of that year, T.M. Wood advertised in the Golden Age that he had just moved his “photograph rooms” from California to The Dalles, Oregon, and took pleasure in informing the citizens of Oregon, Washington and Idaho Territory that he was now prepared “to take all kinds of Pictures known to the art from life size down to locket or ring pictures, unsurpassed by any in the world.” Wood probably never opened a studio in Lewiston, but his ad in the Golden Age presents a good idea of the range of work-skilled professionals of his day were able to perform: “Artistic and Life Like pictures by all the new and improved processes of fine tone and infinite durability, unsurpassed for boldness of outline or beauty of finish will be executed at all times and in all kinds of weather. Children taken in one second of time. Old Daguerreotypes and other pictures copied, improved, enlarged or refinished and rendered imperishable.”

By 1863 lenses and emulsions had improved to the point that the long exposures that had plagued sitters earlier were no longer necessary. Children especially had been almost impossible to photograph because they couldn’t sit still for more than a few seconds. The clamps used to hold subjects’ heads still were trying enough for adults, let alone for children who objected loudly and tearfully to such treatment. Children who died in infancy were sometimes photographed in that state.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.