Born in Petersburg, New York in 1820, no biographical or educational information exists on Silas A. Holmes. However, by age 25, he entered into a partnership with fellow local photographer C. C. Harrison. In 1847, the business was dissolved when Mr. Harrison wanted to concentrate on producing photographic lenses. By 1851, Mr. Holmes had moved from Petersburg to New York City, where he opened a gallery on lower Broadway (the SoHo section), which was the hub of the photographic district of Manhattan at the time. Mr. Holmes was in very elite company, and had his work cut out for him to distinguish himself from the luminaries that shared that Broadway address.
However, by the mid-1850s, Mr. Holmes was operating five successful studios (one was located 303 Broadway between Duane and Reade Streets, now the Tribeca district, and another was at 596 Broadway between Houston and Prince Streets). He had established his professional reputation on being an excellent landscape and field photographer, and worked diligently to develop various techniques and processes to perfect his art. In 1854, he applied for a patent for a stereoscopic camera, in which two camera boxes attached together could simultaneously photograph a single image. The following year, Mr. Holmes produced several stereographic images of Niagara Falls that received widespread critical acclaim. He also became the first American photographer to advertise sales of cartes-de-visite, or "visiting cards" (salted paper prints) of landscapes and landmarks, measuring about 11x15". He offered customers reproductions of their photographs onto these cards, with 25 copies selling for $1 in 1860.
The intrusion of the Civil War adversely affected Mr. Holmes's studio and printing business, and so he again took to the field. He apparently worked as a a member of celebrated wartime photographer Mathew Brady's camera crew – along with H. Hodges, E. T. Whitney and David Woodbury - and photographed the battles of Harpers Ferry in West Virginia and Antietam in Maryland from September 12-17, 1862. Afterwards, he returned to New York, where he worked primarily as a landscape photographer, producing more than 300 stereoscopic images of the Manhattan area. He later shifted focus to the northern part of the state, taking several photographs of the picturesque Sarasota Springs. While clearly a gifted photographer and technician, Mr. Holmes was a less-than-successful businessman.
Ill-advised real estate investments usurped his finances, leaving him virtually bankrupt by the 1880s. When 66-year-old Silas A. Holmes died in New York City on January 27, 1886 after a brief illness, his photographer friends quickly came to the aid of his widow and three daughters with much-needed financial assistance. Mr. Holmes was laid to rest at Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery. His contributions as a pioneering daguerreotypist (and innovator who mastered both wet-plate and dry collodion processes) are reflected in exhibits featuring his works on both coasts, including the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
2002 American Photographic Patents: The Daguerreotype & Wet Plate Era 1840-1880 by Janice G. Schimmelman (Nevada City, CA: Carl Mautz Publishing), p. 71.
1886 Anthony's Photographic Bulletin, Vol. XVII (New York: E. & H. T. Anthony & Co.), p.89.
2003 Around Washington Square by Luther S. Harris (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press), p. 31.
2012 The Curse of the Roeblings? The Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge (URL: https://blog.mcny.org/2012/09/11/the-curse-of-the-roeblings-the-construction-of-the-brooklyn-bridge).
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), p. 712.
2004 Harpers Ferry by Dolly Nasby (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing), p. 44.
2013 Mathew Brady: Portraits of a Nation by Robert Wilson (New York: Bloomsbury USA), p. 70.
2017 Mathew Brady, Silas Holmes, H. Hodges, E. T. Whitney and David Woodbury (URL: http://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.2007.33).
2017 The Midwives of Photography (URL: https://faculty.ncc.edu/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=2y9H7DJg5IY%3D&tabid=2646&mid=3394).
2017 Niagara Falls (URL: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/38472/silas-a-holmes-niagara-falls-about-1855).
2013 A Spy for the Union: The Life and Execution of Timothy Webster by Corey Recko (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.), p. 18.
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