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Pirie MacDonald

Ian Pirie MacDonald was born in Chicago to Dr. George and Margaret MacDonald on January 27, 1867. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Troy, New York. His public education ended at the age of 11 when he began in a local iron foundry as a handy boy. Always interested in photography, he became an apprentice at Frank Forshew's Hudson studio in 1883, earning $4 a week. While there, he learned the popular wet plate processes of the day. After mastering their techniques, he opened his own Albany studio six years' later. In 1890, he had saved enough money to marry a local girl, Emilie Van Dusen.

Early in his career, Mr. MacDonald had displayed a talent for coaxing winning poses from children. Shortly thereafter, he began photographing women, who responded positively to his obsession with the slightest details. In 1892, he photographed landscapes for Phelps & Kellogg's published compilation, The Albany Rural Cemetery; its Beauties, its Memories. Soon, his photographic artistry was generating an impressive income few of his colleagues enjoyed. Shortly after opening a studio on New York City's fashionable Fifth Avenue, Fra Elbertus, a.k.a., Elbert Hubbard, soap salesman turned writer and art connoisseur, quipped, "Mr Pirie MacDonald... calls himself a Photographic Artist – and he is. He has more medals and gets higher prices than any photographer in America. His prices are as high as a church steeple."


Mr. MacDonald had developed a reputation for uncompromising artistry. With success, he became extremely selective in his choices of subjects, and always applied what he believed to be the best professional lesson he ever learned as a young photographer - to analyze the subject's character and to ensure it is reflected in the captured image. His philosophy on portrait photography was simple, "Good portraits must be planned... and planned honestly." Mr. MacDonald's lighting was among the most carefully planned of his techniques. The head was particularly tricky, and while it depended very much on the individual, he discovered that light from below never produced favorable results. Back lighting, he maintained, was too often overused to the point of producing an unnatural halo effect. Mr. MacDonald also recognized the importance of time management in effective portrait photography, and restricted the number of sittings he would schedule during the course of the week to avoid professional burnout.

After a highly publicized skirmish with one of his female sitters, Mr. MacDonald famously began passing out business cards that read: "Pirie MacDonald, Photographic Artist. Portraits of Men Only." His male subject list is a veritable 'Who’s Who' and includes poets John Masefield and Sean O'Casey, naturalist John Burroughs, Boy Scouts founder Lord Robert Baden-Powell, and Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Mr. MacDonald was the recipient of several awards for his work, including a gold medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904, and his work was shown in major cities throughout the United States and Europe. He was a life member and honorary master photographer of the Photographers' Association of America, President of the Professional Photographers' Society of New York in 1905 and 1907, and an honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. Throughout his lifetime, he was also deeply involved in the Boy Scouts of America, and founded a chapter in his hometown of Norwalk, Connecticut. Pirie MacDonald continued working well into his seventies, until felled by a cerebral hemorrhage, from which he died at a New York hospital on April 18, 1942. Per his wishes, all of his photographic negatives were destroyed after his death.


Ref:
1998 Guide to Print, Photograph, Architecture & Ephemera Collections (New York: New York Historical Society), p. 104.

1894 The Photographic Journal of America, Vol. XXXI (New York: Edward L. Wilson), pp. 452-454.

1917 Photo-era, Vol. XXXIX (Boston: Wilfred A. French), pp. 167-169.

1901 The Photo-miniature: A Monthly Magazine of Photographic Information, Vol. II (New York: Tennant and Ward), pp. 476-478.

1941 Popular Science, Vol. CXXXIX (New York: Popular Science Co., Inc.), pp. 207-209.

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