American photographer Alva Adee Pearsall was born into a prominent Long Island family on December 8, 1839. He and his brothers G. Frank and Charles learned the fundamentals of the daguerreotype at an early age from their uncle Townsend Duryea, one of America's leading practitioners of the nineteenth-century photographic process. From his Williamsburg, Virginia studio, Mr. Townsend taught his nephews how to take pictures and make plates based upon Daguerre's techniques. Furthermore, he emphasized photography as a powerful form of artistic expression.
Alva Pearsall began taking photographs professionally at the age of 19, and had become so technically proficient, his uncle entrusted his gallery to him when he traveled to Australia. Around this time, the daguerreotype was already being replaced by other photographic methods, which Mr. Pearsall promptly mastered. He was one of the first photographers to take pictures of the West Indies. His budding career as a world photographer also included tours of Central America an extended stay in South America. Accompanied by American stage actor Lewis Morrison, Mr. Pearsall photographed prominent South Americans, including Venezuelan General (and soon to be President) Antonio Guzman Blanco.
Upon his return to the United States, Mr. A. A. Pearsall at age 27, joined Mathew Brady's photographic staff and served as general supervisor of the famed Civil War photographer's New York gallery located at the corner of Broadway and Tenth Street. Mr. Pearsall became a strong public supporter of discovering a process for taking instant photographs and encouraged his fellow photographers to do the same in a published December 1871 letter to The Philadelphia Photographer.
In 1872, Alva A. Pearsall built and opened his own studio in Brooklyn at the corner of Fulton avenue and Hudson avenue. The brick building with ornamental Ohio stone was three stories high where the first floor contained shops in addition to Mr. Pearsall's main reception room and office and he also occupied the upper levels, where the operating rooms were located. His fame from the Brady studio continued and his own studio soon became quite prominent among the local social elite. Having his own studio enabled Pearsall to indulge in photographic experimentation, exploring the artistic uses of light and shadow, color and tone, and how to cultivate natural poses in his subjects. He also applied several modern photographic processes and developed and patented the "alvagraph." Alvagraphs were plain portraits that featured mostly head shots on large plates. Mr. Pearsall became so closely associated with his adopted hometown that he was dubbed 'the Sarony of Brooklyn,' an homage to the esteemed New York-based artistic photographer Napoleon Sarony. He was also a genius at marketing his studio, and held frequent 'art receptions' in which invitations were issued to his friends and their friends so that they could tour the studio and business operations and then afterwards be treated to an entertaining evening of music and dancing.
Mr. Pearsall was actively involved in several Brooklyn civic organizations including the Montauk Club, the Union League, and the Petroleum Exchange. His successful career allowed him and his family to live comfortably, and at the beginning of the twentieth century, his fortune was estimated at close to a million dollars. Alva Pearsall died from complications associated with Bright's disease on February 20, 1893 at the age of 53.
1872 The Photographic Times, Vol II p. 152-153.
1893 Anthony's Photographic Bulletin, Vol. XXIV (New York: E. & H. T. Anthony & Co.), p. 123.
1882 British Journal of Photography, Vol. XXIX (London: Henry Greenwood), p. 21.
1905 A History of Long Island, Vol. III (New York: The Lewis Publishing Company), pp. 73-74.
1893 The Photographic Journal of America, Vol. XXX (New York: Edward L. Wilson), pp. 184-185.
1883 Photographic Times and American Photographer, Vol. XIII (New York: Scovill Manufacturing Company), p. 582.
2000 Pioneer Photographers of the Far West: A Biographical Dictionary, 1840-1865 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), p. 431.
Copyright © 2002 - 2019 Historic Camera