Thomas Rice Burnham was born to Asa and Lydia Parsons Burnham in 1834 in Winslow, Maine. Little is known about his education or family life beyond he was one of four children and began his professional career in Portland, Maine. After a short stay in New York, Mr. Burnham moved to Boston in the early 1860s, where he opened the first of several studios at 247 Washington Street, the heart of downtown Boston. The bulk of Mr. Burnham's trade was commercial portraits, cartes des visite (CDVs) in particular, using glass plate negatives. His portfolio was a veritable Who's Who of prominent Americans, which include President Abraham Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant, and actor Edwin Booth. His CDVs of departing Civil War soldiers became treasured mementoes of families and friends.
Mr. Burnham prided himself on being both artist and scientist, and frequently described by his professional colleagues as possessing "a very unique character." His experiments with glass plate negatives were enthusiastically chronicled by photographic club journals and industry publications. In 1870, he was named Vice President of the newly formed Boston Photographic Society. Three years later, he and partner Edward Sidney Dunshee were operating the Dunshee & Burnham gallery at 323 Washington Street. By 1875, Mr. Burnham was concentrating on panoramic views, and introduced his large photographs that he declared were made from a "half and half" instrument he constructed with Usner and Alvan Clark lenses to an enthusiastic group of local artists. He explained this lens combination provided him with great depth without image distortion. Mr. Burnham's 20 X 24" views of Niagara Falls were constructed by reversing the front lens of his hand-crafted instrument. Each of these large plates required 6 oz. of collodion to coat, and the ever-innovative Mr. Burnham used a tar-coated pine bath dish that was approximately 9" longer than his glass plate. Despite the extreme difficulties associated with such an undertaking, his images are amazingly free of the mist that tended to obscure previous views of Niagara Falls.
In the early part of June 1886 news spread from Boston across the country that local photographer T. R. Burnham produced the largest dry plate ever attempted. It was a thirty six by sixty inch, three-quarter-length portrait of a young lady. The thickness of the glass was about a half inch and weighed eighty pounds. Allen & Rowell created it. The camera used to capture the mammoth exposure was home made by Burnham and fitted with the largest No. 8 Euryscope lens made.
Always eager to share his knowledge with aspiring photographers, Mr. Burnham maintained that plain paper pictures were easier to preserve than albumen silver prints because the high water content in albumen tainted their surfaces over time. Unless they were properly stored, many of these images unfortunately deteriorated, just as Mr. Burnham predicted. Thomas Rice Burnham died in his home state of Maine in 1893, and buried at Pine Grove Cemetery in Kennebec County. Although his name is virtually forgotten today, T. R. Burnham CDVs are highly sought after by twenty-first century photo historians and serious collectors.
2014 The Horse Soldier: Fine Military Americana (URL:
2014 National Library of Australia (URL: http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/19989147?versionId=23532842).
2014 The Pet Historian (URL: http://thepethistorian.com/category/pet-portraiture).
1875 The Philadelphia Photographer (Philadelphia: Benerman & Wilson), pp. 101-102, 187.
1877 The Philadelphia Photographer (Philadelphia: Benerman & Wilson), p. 49.
1914 Camera Craft - Volume 21 - Page 299.
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