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  Abel J. Whalen, Photographer

Born in Vermont in 1830 to John and Elizabeth Scott Whalen, the family settled permanently in Pittsfield Michigan shortly thereafter. Little is known about Mr. Whalen's education, professional training or family life beyond he was married to Sarah, and they had two children, Herbert and Grace. His photographic career is believed to begun in 1862, and his specialty for the next three decades was albumen portraits. During the latter portion of the nineteenth century, a fad known as "freak photography" was at the height of its popularity in the United States, and Mr. Whalen became one of its best-known practitioners. Unlike his contemporaries, he was more than willing to share his trade secrets with paying customers. For example, to double an image, the photographer would place a lightproof shutter opening in the middle of a plate, with leaves that were slightly overlapping positioned in the front. With one of the leaves open, the first exposure is produced; then, with the lens capped, the subject's position is changed, and the previously closed leaf is opened while the closed one is opened to make the second exposure. The black background (achieved either by a darkened space or screens placed into the last folds of the camera's bellows) ensures the second exposure can be produced without blurring or diminishing the sharp image of the first exposure. Mr. Whalen delighted in demonstrating how images could be duplicated to show a man greeting his double or how a montage of images could represent the changing moods of his subject. His techniques are illustrated in such photos as "A Chance Meeting" (which was the photographer's double self-portrait), "Freak Photo Trio," and "Gentlemen of the Jury."

With a combination of technical ability and showmanship, Mr. Whalen attracted considerable attention, and his half-price specials generated attention and business. Always interested in the latest technology, Mr. Whalen owned one of the earliest automobiles, which he felt was every bit as crucial to his business as his cameras and photographic accessories. He once operated five studios throughout Michigan – in Albion, Charlotte, Detroit, Holly, and Saranac. During the last decade of the nineteenth century, he devoted himself to refining the double exposure process, and experimenting with sensitized paper. But all fads fade eventually. As if the magician of "freak photography" had performed his own disappearing act, there is no reported photographic activity for Abel J. Whalen after 1897.

1891 The American Annual of Photography and Photographic Times Almanac for 1892, Vol. VI (New York: Scovill & Adams Company), pp. 114-115.

1892 The Beacon, Vol. IV (Chicago: The Beacon Publishing Co.), pp. 171-172.

2011 Century of the Beard (URL:

1893 The Photographic Journal of America, Vol. XXX (New York: Edward L. Wilson), p. 147.

1890 Photographic Mosaics, Vol. XXVI (New York: Edward L. Wilson), pp. 201-203.

2003 Seeing Double: Creating Clones with a Camera by Dave Tinder for The American Museum of Photography (URL:

1891 Wilson's Photographic Magazine, Vol. XXVIII (New York: Edward L. Wilson), pp. 87-89, 201-203.

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2018-01-15 10:09:56

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