Henry Havelock Pierce, who portrait photographer Pirie MacDonald described as a "prince of photographers", was born to James and Catherine Pierce in 1864 in Nova Scotia, Canada. Details of Mr. Pierce's childhood, family, and personal life remain scant. At some point, he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where at the age of 17 he apprenticed at William Notman's local studio. He then honed his technical skills at Boston's McCormick & Heald gallery located at 22 Winter Street. At an early age, Mr. Pierce developed an affinity for portraiture, and his photographic vision was decidedly pictorial, which as the name implies, is an artistic focus on the overall picture rather than limited strictly to the portrait itself.
In September 1886, Mr. Pierce was named manager of the Heald studio in Providence, Rhode Island, and opened his own studio there a few years later. A 1900 article in Photo Era journal described Mr. Pierce's firm as "one of the best equipped working studios in New England." Top and side lights were installed in the operating room, and the printing and dark rooms featured hot and cold water as well as the latest electrical equipment. But for Mr. Pierce, photography was more than decor, chemicals, and technology. He believed photographic composition reflected the photographer's own personality in the positioning of the sitter, approach to developing, printing process, and lighting. He broke away from the portrait painter tradition of relying upon a side light at a 45-degree angle, and instead preferred to disperse direct and soft lighting throughout his portraits with the use of various screens and reflectors. This provides an aesthetically appealing balance between light and shadow, and emphasizes subtle details rather than creating a central focal point for the viewer. When asked about his photographic theories, Mr. Pierce claimed he did not ascribe to a particular method to his composition process, rather approached each portrait from new and different perspectives. He would examine his subject from every conceivable angle to determine the way shadows fell naturally, and then would enhance them through diffused light, shading, and tinting. The quintessential perfectionist, Mr. Pierce would invariably query visitors to his studio with, "How is this?", "Isn't it fine?", or "Oh, I will do better yet!"
Mr. Pierce was active in several photographic organizations, and was elected president of the Photographic Club of New England in 1900. He was the only American photographer to receive a medal at the Royal Photographic Society's London exhibition in 1904. In later years, he became an avid follower of the Secessionist movement, and in particular greatly admired the works of Edward Steichen. Henry Havelock Pierce died in 1943 virtually unknown to the public aside from his stunning portraits, prompting art critic Sadakichi Hartmann to observe, "If you want to become better acquainted with him, study his prints."
1906 The American Amateur Photographer, Vol. XVIII (New York: The American Publishing Co.), p. 256.
2014 Henry Havelock Pierce by Thomas G. Yanul (URL: http://www.thomasyanul.com/pierce1index.html).
1904 The New Photo-Miniature, Vol. VI (London: Dawbarn & Ward), p. 409.
1900 Photo-Era, Vols. III-IV (Boston: The Photo Era Publishing Company), pp. 476-482.
1915 The Photographic Journal of America, Vol. LII (New York: Edward L. Wilson Company, Inc.), pp. 181-189.
1978 The Valiant Knights of Daguerre (Berkeley: University of California Press), pp. 210-214.
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