Multiple images

In taking the first images of Minnehaha Falls, Alexander Hesler and Joel E. Whitney made 25 or 30 daguerrotypes in a single session on August 15, 1852.  It was an unusual beginning to the photographic record. Mostly, professional photographers took one-off tourist pictures or scenic shots of the Falls. And some of these were, in fact, reprinted endlessly. But it actually was quite rare, in those early years, for a photographer to go down to Minnehaha and take several pictures in a sequence.

Here’s an exception to that.

first of three pictures of her
A young woman visits the Falls on a winter’s day. The glory of this picturesque scene enthralls her.
first of several pictures of the same person.
She stands in the icy path, gazing across the gorge at the ice formations. Her hands are in a muff.
third of 3 pictures of her
A similar picture, taken from a slightly different place. But! A shadowy figure looms over the scene: A man is on the creek bank above.
a man stands where the woman had been
The lurking man has come to the Middle Terrace to view the Falls. The young woman did not wait around for his advance.

Four pictures, all taken on the same day. These images are not difficult to find on the collectors’ market. They were reprinted under a few different seller’s names, and they were sold in great numbers.

Most likely these were taken by William Henry Illingworth. But we don’t know anything, really, about what these people were doing or thinking, and we don’t know who they were. The inventive researchers at urbancreek.com have spent too long trying to determine if the woman is someone named Sarah A. Illingworth and the man is (her first husband) Joseph Ollerenshaw, perhaps on their wedding day on Jan. 17, 1867. (William Henry Illingworth was Sarah’s brother.)

This intriguing idea is sadly implausible, an opinion based on how soft, wet, and old the snow on the footpath looks, and on how much liquid water is flowing over the Falls. January 17th ought to be during one of the coldest weeks of the year. The snow should be cold and crisp. Even if it were the January Thaw, the Falls ought to have been frozen. Unfortunately, no climate data from this period of Minnesota history survives, so we cannot know if this were an unseasonable warm winter.

It’s not even certain if W. H. Illingworth had returned in time for his sister’s wedding from his 1866 assignment to photograph an exploring and settlers’ party headed to Montana.

Though it is not their wedding day, this could be Sarah and Joseph later in the year 1867, perhaps in late March. Sarah reappears in the Minnehaha Falls story in years to come; Joseph Ollerenshaw fades intractably from history. But what did Illingworth think was worth preserving about these people in these multiple images? Did he sell the negatives later; did someone else see what he saw in these pictures?

During the likely mid-to-late-1860s period when these pictures were taken, Illingworth was married. Was the woman his wife Kate? If so, who is the man?  If it’s Illingworth, who took the picture with the man and woman in it? Etc., and etc., and etc….

How pleasing it would have been to discover the story of these pictures. But there’s an important difference between creating a believable story and proving a true one. As historians know, or fail to learn at their peril. “It fits the facts” does not make it true. [1]


[1] But the speculation is endless intriguing fun.

5 thoughts on “Multiple images”

  1. IMO, the first one’s the ‘keeper’ in pretty much all ways: the tonal depth, the composition, the lighting. But I notice that in #4, there’s what appears to be the ghost of the photographer’s fingerprint lurking between the two trees.

    1. It’s not the photographer’s fingerprint, unfortunately, but that of some later person. These photos are all natively the sepia-tone of early photography, but I changed them to B&W because the colors were a little off on all of them. They need to be scanned again. 🙁

  2. I agree #1 is the nicest shot! Possibly the processing chemistry was getting cold/less active in the later images. I was also intrigued by the apparently more beaten-down path in image #2. As you say, “speculation is endless intriguing fun.” Despite his problems in life, I admire Illingworth and his work a great deal, and these do seem to be possibly in his style.

    1. Some of these were copy prints, made from photographing a photograph and reprinting that, so quality varies from that also. Paul, do you know of any professional connection between Illingworth and Benjamin Franklin Upton?

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