Saturday, September 3, 2011

Isaiah West Taber (1830-1912) - Pioneer California Photographer

Taber's plot is the enclosed grassy area, not the mausoleum

Plot 14B, Lot 116

After spending some of his teenage years on whaling ships at sea, Isaiah West Taber, a native of New Bedford, Massachusetts, arrived in California in 1850 hoping to find gold.  Like most of his fellow gold-seekers, he didn’t find his fortune in the hills, and returned home in 1854.  In New Bedford he tried his hand at dentistry, but lost interest and turned to photography, and in 1856 he settled in Syracuse, New York where he established a portrait business.

In 1864 he returned to California where he worked for San Francisco photographers William Herman Rulofson and Henry Bradley, and around 1871, went out on his own.  In 1878 he established a large gallery at 8 Montgomery Street, and in 1893 moved to 121 Post Street.  According to the introduction to “Taber: A Photographic Legacy” (Windgate Press, 2003), “Portraiture established his reputation and created an outlet for taking and acquiring landscape views and experimenting with different forms of photography.”  Photographers of that period made their living by taking portraits.

Taber photograph of a boy from his Montgomery St. studio

 In the annals of photography, Taber ranks as one of California’s and the West’s premier pioneer photographers, and perhaps no other early California photographer achieved such fame during hislifetime. 

Taber photographed Ulysses S. Grant and six other U.S. presidents, the royal family of Hawaii, Queen Victoria (he was invited to photograph her Diamond Jubilee in 1897), and Edward VII.  His success in London led him to open a studio there.  In San Francisco Taber was commissioned to photograph the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition.  His albums remain a fine documentary of that major event.

Taber's famous photo of Yosemite
In 1876 he acquired Carleton E. Watkins’ vast collection of negatives (Watkins had suffered economic reverses) and published some of Watkins’ views under his own name, for which he was criticized.

One of the disastrous losses incurred curing the 1906 earthquake and fire was the destruction of the entire collection of Taber’s glass negatives….80 tons of portrait negatives and 12 tons of view negatives were consumed.  Fortunately, Taber had published many popular albums, insuring that his work would remain available, but the earthquake signaled the end of his career.

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