Idaho History

In search of Idaho customers, some photographers took their darkrooms on the road

The studios of Idaho photographers in the early 1900s ranged from fashionable and stocked to bare-bones.
The studios of Idaho photographers in the early 1900s ranged from fashionable and stocked to bare-bones. Provided by Arthur Hart

By the beginning of the 20th century, the studios of Idaho photographers still varied widely in style and elegance. Some, like that of Clarence E. Bisbee of Twin Falls, were exceptionally artistic and well appointed. Others in very small towns were much plainer and limited to the basic essentials of camera, backdrop and some kind of seat for the subject.

Many, but by no means all, photo studios were equipped with electric lights by 1910. Most old-timers still relied on skylights and large windows with northern exposure for their most artistic and satisfactory results. Electricity was not available to Twin Falls and Jerome until 1907, to Buhl and Filer until 1908, or to Gooding, Wendell and Kimberly until 1909. Arthur M. Whelchel, who built his photo studio in Emmett in 1905, proudly called it the “Electric Gallery,” a name that suggests the novelty at the time of taking portraits with artificial light, even though both Hailey and Boise had had electricity since 1887. It is unlikely that very many Idaho photographers used electric lighting for portraits, even if it was available to them.

Because Idaho’s population was small and widely scattered in the 19th and early 20th centuries, some pioneer photographers took to the road in search of customers. This meant taking a rolling darkroom along with them for preparing, developing and printing glass-plate negatives. Some photographers traveled in specially built vans pulled by horses and took annual treks through the backcountry visiting isolated ranches and mining towns, far from any permanent studio. Although some such vehicles were little more than covered wagons, others were elaborate, custom-built “studios on wheels,” where a customer could sit for his portrait. Wives who accompanied their photographer husbands on these trips sometimes assisted in the work and became proficient at it.

Timothy H. O’Sullivan, photographer with the King Survey of the Fortieth Parallel in the late 1860s, used an Army ambulance pulled by mules as a photographic studio. When the party visited Idaho’s Shoshone Falls in October 1868, King’s report tells us, “We were obliged to leave our wagon at the summit and pack down the camp equipment and photographic apparatus upon carefully led mules. By midday we were comfortably camped on the margin of the left bank, just above the brink of the falls. My tent was pitched on the edge of a cliff, directly overhanging the rapids. From my door I looked over the cataract and whenever the veil of mist was blown aside, could see for half a mile down the river.”

After automobiles became common, horse-drawn photographic vans were replaced by trucks. Although itinerant photographers continued to visit rural areas well into the 1930s, they rarely did developing and printing on the road, but returned to their home studio for that part of the process. Even in larger towns like Boise, it was good business to go to the customer than to wait for them to come to you. The business cards of Boise photographer James Grover Burns proclaimed him to be a “specialist in home portrait photography” and carried the slogan, “Your Home is Our Studio.” Burns had his own studio, of course, with a specially designed north-lighted portrait room and a darkroom, but the offer of house calls and the opportunity to be photographed in one’s own living room had real sales appeal.

Burns had a studio in Caldwell in 1912, before moving to Boise in 1913. The first Caldwell photographer was Francis Moore, who had a studio there from 1888 until 1898. He was followed by a dozen others, including Lucien B. Snodgrass and his daughters, Mary and Margaret.

Research reveals that by the early years of the 20th century, more than 40 women were doing portrait photography in towns all across Idaho, some in partnership with their husbands, but most with businesses of their own.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email