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Elias Goldensky

"Wizard of Photography" Elias Goldensky was born in the small Ukrainian village of Radomysl on September 9, 1867. His father Benjamin was an oculist, and opened a photography studio in the commercial district of Kremenchug in the 1870s. After the assassination of Emperor Alexander II in 1881, the subsequent anti-Semitic pogroms resulted in oppressive living conditions for Jewish families like the Goldenskys. Elias attempted to supplement the family income by becoming a member of a local acting troupe. At the age of 23, he, his father, grandmother, and two younger brothers, emigrated to the United States, and settled in Philadelphia, which at the time was America's second largest city. Philadelphia was the natural choice because of its large Ukrainian Jewish population.

Young Mr. Goldensky quickly joined William J. Kuebler Jr.'s portrait studio as a retoucher. Less than a year later, he began working for Frederick Gutekunst, and spent the next four years as a retoucher and part-time printer. In 1895, Mr. Goldensky opened his own studio, which had stiff competition from the city's more than 130 portrait studios. Despite its ghetto location, Mr. Goldensky's studio quickly earned a reputation for producing elegant portraits that soon grabbed the attention of Philadelphia's most elite citizens.

Surrounded by tall buildings that made a skylight impossible, Mr. Goldensky's portrait sittings required a Percy King Light Controller. What some photographers would regard as an impediment he perceived as a huge creative advantage, stating, "I do not care if I only have an ordinary window, I can get whatever lighting or effect I wish with my light controller". Mr. Goldensky's approach to his subjects was equally unorthodox because he did nothing to dictate the expressions or poses of his sitters. He might suggest a particular chair or pose to his sitters, but firmly adhered to his professional mantra: "Let them be themselves." If he noticed a particular fatigue or sluggishness in a sitter on a particular day, the person would be posed and another attempt would be made at the next appointment. He defended his approach by explaining, "I want individuality... If I cannot put my whole soul into the picture that I am about to make, I will not spoil my reputation nor will I disappoint my sitter by giving him something that anybody can make. I must have results and only the best. I don't care if I do not make a penny out of the sitting". For Mr. Goldensky, the gum print was the perfect process for the wide variety of individual expressions the medium offered. Most of his sitters do not make direct eye contact with the photographer. Instead, they are looking off into the distance that added an aura of mystery to the portraits.

Mr. Goldensky's photography studio remained profitable until World War I, when the business of portrait photography began a steady decline that bottomed out during the Great Depression. Nevertheless, he remained in demand as a photographic exhibitor, convention lecturer, and member of several photographic societies. Louis Walton Sipley named Mr. Goldensky to serve on the first board of directors of Philadelphia's American Museum of Photography in 1940. The photographic maverick dubbed the "Wizard of Photography" died from an asthmatic attack on March 10, 1943, and his massive personal archives of 1,500 prints and more than 1,600 negatives and transparencies were donated to the museum. After founder Louis Walton Sipley's death, his widow sold the museum's holdings to the 3M Company, which were donated to the George Eastman House in 1972.


Ref:
1907 Camera: A Practical Magazine for Photographers, Vol. XI (Philadelphia: Columbia Photographic Society), pp. 286-290.

1997 Pennsylvania History, Vol. LXIV (Camp Hill, PA: Plank's Suburban Press), pp. 206-272.

1978 The Valiant Knights of Daguerre: Selected Critical Essays on Photography and Profiles on Photographic Pioneers (Berkeley: University of California Press), pp. 215-220.

1912 Wilson's Photographic Magazine, Vol. XLIX (New York: Edward L. Wilson), pp. 265-267.


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