One of Philadelphia's most accomplished photographers, William H. Rau was born in the "City of Brotherly Love" in 1855. His photographic career began early, as a 13-year-old apprentice at English photographer William Bell's studio. Six years' later and still a teenager, Mr. Rau became a photographer for the United States Transit of Venus Expedition. While sailing the globe on the old wartime vessel known as the Swatara, he performed intricate photographic tasks based upon astronomical planetary observations.
After returning to the United States, he joined the Government Survey of the Yellowstone and Rocky Mountains, and his photography is often credited with the expedition's success. In 1877, he married Louisa Bell, the daughter of his first employer and photographic mentor William Bell. The couple would later add two daughters to their family. In 1881, Mr. Rau joined his friend and colleague Edward L. Wilson, founder of the Photographic Journal of America, in an exhaustive journey through Arabia, Arabia Petra, Egypt, and the Palestine. He is acknowledged as the first photographer to capture images of monuments and historical buildings from this region. His dry plates of Arabia Petra preserved what many believed were ancient ruins that had been forever lost. His plates of temples and tombs offered the West fascinating perspectives on African and Middle Eastern history and introduced them to their unique and quite different ways of life.
He later took an extensive tour to Mexico with writer John L. Stoddard and his regional photographs later became a sensation on the Philadelphia lecture circuit. Upon his return to the United States in 1882, Mr. Rau was named head of Edward L. Wilson's photographic department, and remained with the publisher until the business operations of The Philadelphia Photographer relocated to New York three years' later. At that point, he decided to open his own business and while acting as his own manager he steadily built what became one of the largest commercial photography studios in America. He also served as official photographer of the Pennsylvania Railroad for more than three decades. Mr. Rau also constructed custom cameras and processes for specific photographic purposes. For example, he was able to photograph the massive stone bridge over the Susquehanna River and Hell Gate Bridge at the water level by placing himself in a box and being hauled by a rope to his desired vantage point.
A longtime member and former President of The Photographic Society of Philadelphia, America's oldest photographic club, Mr. Rau was the most famous photographer in his hometown during his lifetime. After a brief illness, he died on November 19, 1920. Of his accomplishments, a story published in The Philadelphia Public Ledger noted, "Few men have crowded more adventure into a working lifetime than William H. Rau."
1917 Bulletin of Photography, Vol. XXI (Philadelphia: Frank V. Chambers), pp. 213-215.
1921 The Camera, Vol. XXV (Philadelphia: The Camera Publishing Company), p. 48.
1918 Photographic Journal of America, Vol. LV (Philadelphia: Franklin Square), p. 392.
1921 Photographic Journal of America, Vol. LVIII (Philadelphia: Franklin Square), p. 16.
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