The "dean of American photographers" Frederick Gutekunst was born on September 25, 1831 in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Little is known about the childhood of this son of a German cabinetmaker. After briefly apprenticing with an attorney, he became the apprentice of Philadelphia pharmacist Avery Tobey. In his spare time, he experimented with various daguerreotype processes, and succeeded in making copper electrotype copies from daguerreotypes. Though an impressive feat, this process was deemed to have no commercial value, although Mr. Gutekunst's pride in his accomplishment was evident by the framed copper plate he later displayed on his studio wall.
Mr. Gutekunst's career as a photographer began with a homemade camera box and a $5 lens. He opened his first studio with his brother Louis in 1856. The business was successful from the beginning, receiving some unexpected assistance from the Civil War within its first years of operations. Before going off to fight, uniformed Union soldiers assembled at Mr. Gutekunst's studio to have carte-de-visite portraits made for their family and friends. Officers and generals from both the army and navy along with various government officials began patronizing the establishment to the point where Mr. Gutekunst became known as the Civil War's “official photographer.” He took great care in photographing both celebrities as well as ordinary citizens and his descriptive logs are currently housed at Philadelphia's Library Company.
As Mr. Gutekunst's business grew, so did his professional reputation as one of America's preeminent portrait photographers. He was an original member of the Photographic Society of Philadelphia, actively serving from 1862 until 1900. He was named official photographer of the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1875, and the next year printed panoramic views of the Centennial Exposition, a 10-foot wide by 18-inches high, that represented the largest photographic mural in the world at the time. For this achievement, Mr. Gutekunst received international attention and earned prestigious decorations from the rulers of Italy and Austria.
So committed was Mr. Gutekunst to natural portraiture that he steadfasly refused to alter his photographs in any way for the ake of artistic perfection. He sought to achieve true-to-life portraits that captured a particular moment in time. His impressive array of sitters include poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman, actor Edwin Booth, Chinese statesman Wu Tingfang, and Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant, George Meade, Winfield Scott Hancock, James Longstreet, and William T. Sherman. With his portrait studio flourishing, Mr. Gutekunst bought the rights to a phototype process that would allow him to mass produce top quality photographic reproductions. Frederick Gutekunst remained active until shortly before his death on April 27, 1917 at the age of 85.
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), p. 629.
1917 Journal of the Franklin Institute, Vol. CLXXXIV (Philadelphia: The Franklin Institute), pp. 317-319.
1983 Philadelphia ReVisions (Philadelphia: The Library Company), p. 28.
1915 Photo-Era Magazine, Vol. XXXV (Boston: Wilfred A. French), pp. 261-262.
1913 Wilson's Photographic Magazine, Vol. L (New York: Edward L. Wilson Company, Inc.), pp. 537-538.
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