Asa Floyd Vail, Jr. was born to Asa and Amy Knapp Allison Vail near Amity, New York on February 4, 1854. After relocating briefly to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the family settled permanently in Jersey City, New Jersey. After a public school education, Mr. Vail was then educated by a series of private tutors before becoming a successful merchant. He joined the writing and editorial staff of Wallace’s Monthly in New York City, and also contributed to several other periodicals while translating several French texts into English. It is believed that during this period, Mr. Vail became acquainted with the art of photography. In 1876, he married Sarah Crow, with whom he would have four children, Floyd Eugene, Lillian, Roswell Flower, and Eleanor.
Mr. Vail, who had established himself as an astute businessman and able administrator, became the personal secretary of New York Governor Roswell P. Flower, during his two-year term from 1892 until 1894. Afterwards, his hobby of amateur photography quickly turned into a vocation. The award-winning “A Landscape Artist” (1915), was representative of his early landscape photographs, with the water and landscape commanding as much of the viewer’s attention as the human subject. Soon, his photographs were gracing the covers of sports and nature publications. By 1922, Mr. Vail was serving as the print committee chairman of the New York Camera Club, and an exhibition of nearly 50 of his photographs, were greeted with critical acclaim. An article in that year’s The Photographic Journal of America observed of Mr. Vail’s exhibition, “His pictures depict the spirit and mood of nature, and as such have few equals in pictorial photography.” Compositionally, his photographs resemble drawings in terms of their mass and contrast for depth and aesthetic appeal.
After enjoying success in several international photographic exhibitions, Mr. Vail returned to his native New York, where 60 of his bromide prints were featured at the Department of Photography of Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. Once again, judges were captivated by his artistry and his camera’s ability to capture not only a visual moment in time, but also its mood and emotion. Conventional Pictorialist photography was rapidly losing favor after World War I, where overt sentimentality seemed woefully displaced in the stark postwar landscape. Nevertheless, Floyd Vail’s mastery of the art form earned him the distinction of the first one-man photographic exhibition in the history of the District of Columbia’s United States National Museum.
Floyd Vail died in New York City on October 12, 1931. Some of his personal papers and correspondence were donated to the Smithsonian Instution and two of his landscape photographs currently reside in Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales.
1922 American Photography, Vol. XVI (Boston: American Photographic Publishing Company), p. 136.
1893 The History of the Alison or Allison Family in Europe and America (Boston: Damrell & Upham), p. 230.
1915 The Photographic Journal of America, Vol. LII (New York: Edward L. Wilson), p. 338.
1921 The Photographic Journal of America, Vol. LVIII (Philadelphia: Franklin Square), pp. 172, 183-184.
1922 The Photographic Journal of America, Vol. LIX (Philadelphia: Franklin Square), pp. 74-75,135.
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