Charles John Tyson was born to Ervin and Susannah [Griffith] Tyson in Trenton, New Jersey, on September 5, 1838. His family relocated to Philadelphia, where at age 11, young Charles became a furniture apprentice. He later began studying the relatively new skill of daguerreotyping, and along with his older brother Isaac Griffith Tyson (born September 17, 1833), he moved to Gettysburg, where the pair opened a portrait studio on August 16, 1859. They are believed to be the first professional photographers in Adams County. Two years' later, the Tyson Brothers moved to a larger facility on 9 York Street, which was named Excelsior Skylight Gallery. Shortly thereafter, they were joined by a 12-year-old local apprentice named William H. Tipton (1850-1929).
The Civil War commenced on April 12, 1861, and Union soldiers frequented the only local photo gallery to have portraits taken to send to their families. The battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) would become the most violent conflict in North America, eventually claiming some 51,000 casualties. Although the Tysons' local terrain knowledge gave them a clear advantage over the barrage of photographers who scrambled to document the carnage, the brothers photographed neither the battle nor the dead. First, they were Quakers who opposed war (Isaac was a conscientious objector); and second, they were unable to afford the expensive equipment necessary to take field photographs. The glass-plate negatives were encased in heavyweight cameras and required cumbersome chemical treating for light sensitivity. They then had to be developed quickly in a portable darkroom (usually a tent transported by a horse-drawn cart). When the brothers returned, they found their studio virtually untouched by the Confederate troops, that is, except for an empty barrel of 95% alcohol they used for their plates.
Within a few weeks after the battle, the brothers purchased an enclosed buggy and began photographing various battlefield sites, including Cemetery Hill and Seminary Ridge.
At the Soldiers' National Cemetery dedication on November 19, 1863 (where President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address), the Tysons were among the large group of photographers assembled for the event. However, instead of focusing on the participants, they concentrated instead on the surrounding once-tranquil landscape, which provided their images with an added poignancy. After the war, the brothers made albumen prints chronicling the dedication of the National Soldiers' Orphans' Homestead on November 20, 1866, where attendees included Union General Ulysses S. Grant.
In 1866, the Tyson brothers sold their business and negatives to their employees, William H. Tipton and Robert A. Myers, and the studio was promptly renamed Tipton and Myers Excelsior Gallery. When Mr. Tipton bought out his partner in 1880, the studio name became W. H. Tipton and Company. He later recalled his time with the Tysons as "the most valuable [years] of my life." Charles Tyson retired from photography to become a farmer while Isaac relocated to Philadelphia, where he operated a successful portrait studio. One of his earliest sitters was Frederick Douglass. Charles Tyson died in 1906 and his older brother joined him seven years' later. These largely unknown photographic pioneers were finally given their long-overdue recognition by historian William A. Frassanito in his text, Gettysburg: A Journey in Time.
2005 The Blue and Gray in Black and White: A History of Civil War Photography by Bob Zeller (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers), p. 112.
2017 Cemetery Hill (URL: http://collection.chrysler.org/emuseum/view/objects/asitem/228/53/title-asc?t:state:flow=2dc6e109-3587-4c5a-bce4-bbe513ce3aea).
2007 Charles John Tyson (URL: https://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=17500327).
2015 Civilians (URL: http://pacivilwar150.com/ThroughPeople/Civilians/GettysburgPhotographers/PhotoGallery.html).
2003 Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine by Jim Weeks (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), p. 13.
2013 Gettysburg Photographers by Rae Tyson (URL: http://pacivilwar150.com/ThroughPeople/Civilians/GettysburgPhotographers.html).
1999 Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier: The Life, Death, and Celebrity of Amos Humiston by Mark H. Dunkelman (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers), p. 194.
2012 Harvest of Death Part 3: Licensed Battlefield Guides Garry Adelman and Tim Smith (URL: http://www.gettysburgdaily.com/harvest-of-death-part-3-licensed-battlefield-guides-garry-adelman-and-tim-smith).
2016 Isaac & Charles Tyson 1863 (URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Isaac_%26_CharlesTyson_1863.jpg).
2017 Orphans' Homestead, Gettysburg, Pa. (URL: https://www.loc.gov/item/2013649088).
2014 Past Remains (URL: http://pastremains.blogspot.com/2014/01/52-ancestors-1b-charles-j-tyson-gets.html).
2013 Photography and the American Civil War by Jeff Rosenheim (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art), p. 266.
2015 Picturing Frederick Douglass by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier (Liferight Publishing Corporation/W. W. Norton & Company), pp. lxxxii-lxxxiii.
2013 Tyson Brothers Photographic Studio by Donna Crone (URL: http://www.gettysburgtimes.com/app/special_sections/Gettysburg_Addresses.pdf).
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