Sunday, October 4, 2015

Louis Thors (1841-1910): Famous San Francisco Photographer

Louis Thors (from Oakland Tribune); Gravesite photo by Michael Colbruno
PLOT 26, LOT 162 

Louis Thors was one of the most famous photographers at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. He is one of many prominent photographers buried at Mountain View Cemetery, including daguerreotpists George Dornin and William Shew, bas-relief specialist Isaiah Taber and Edgar Cohen, who documented much of the 1906 earthquake. He also took one of the most famous pictures of fellow Mountain View Cemetery denizen, Ina Coolbrith, California's first Poet Laureate.

Thors was born in Amsterdam, Holland in 1845. He claimed to be of both French descent and a descendant of Dutch Golden Age painter Gerrit Lundens. He studied engineering, draughtsmanship, and cartography in France and served as a Merchant Marine.

After his family suffered a financial crisis in 1866 he decided to come to California a few years later. After dabbling in real estate and renching, he landed work as a retoucher with the aforementioned Isaiah Taber in 1872-73. He later worked for Thomas Houseworth's studio in 1874, and Bradley and Rulofson Photography in 1875-78, the major photographic studios in the city at the time. He set up the Thors Photographic Company in San Francisco at 1025 Larkin Street, where it operated from 1880-89. His studio later moved to 14 Grant Street and eventually to the Phelan Building on Market Street.

Composer Amy Beach (left) who he photographed on her visit to San Francisco in 1878;  Ina Coolbrith in 1871 (right)
His first wife Katherine "Katie" worked at his studio until her death in 1889 from complications related to neck surgery. He later married Gertrude Thors, who was a noted photographer in her own right.

His studio in the Phelan Building, which included 12 "apartments," was considered one of the most beautiful offices in the city, prompting the San Francisco Call (August 17, 1898) to write:
"The apartments, specially built after original designs by Mr. Thors, are perhaps the most complete and the most elaborate this side of the Rockies, or, in fact, In the entire country- Everything from the magnificent reception room down to the minutest detail of the adjoining rooms is perfect and far and beyond the Slightest fault.  On the lower or main floor of the new gallery are situated the reception room, directly connected with the street below by a special elevator erected for the purpose; five dressing rooms, each provided with every facility for which It has been designed; two dark rooms, an office, an artist's room, a finishing room, a fire proof negative vault in which are stored over 120,000 negatives, and a retouching room. All of these apartments are spacious, and contain every requirement for perfect work. The reception room is probably the most elaborate of its kind ever designed. It is over a hundred feet square, twenty feet high, with an artstained glass dome directly in the center over twenty feet in diameter. The decorations consist of a magnificent contrast of Egyptian red and black, the wall frescoing being of the former tint, and the heavy woodwork of the latter. On the upper floor are situated the print or fixing room, a tone room, a silver room, a special room for producing enlargements, and the main printing room, which extends a distance of thirty-eight feet, being covered overhead entirely of glass."
Thors became well known for using the Nadar process, which was an application of photogravure to portraiture in photography and is noted for its softness and tone. Thors was awarded the bronze prize at the Paris Exhibition in 1889 for mastering this technique. He became particularly noted for his photographs of women and specifically famous actresses of the day. He was known for viewing an actresses performance before shooting her portrait and prohibited the use of makeup. He was highly sought after by the elite ladies of high society to sit for their portraits.

Photos of Nance O'Neil, W.H. Carlton and Lulu Glaser by Louis Thors
He was elected Vice-President of Benjamin Falk's Copyright League, the national lobbying organization on behalf of photographers' property rights, and in 1904 was elected president of the California Professional Photographers Association.

After the devastating earthquake of 1906, Thors left the city and worked in St. Louis for two years as a traveling salesman in the western United States for the Artura Paper Company before returning to California in 1908. He reopened his studio but died of cancer two years later. He was buried in the Plot 26 at Mountain View Cemetery, which he bought for his first wife Katie.

Sources: Sacramento Daily Union, San Francisco Call, California Historical Society, University of New Hampshire archives, Oakland Tribune.

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