Isaac H. Bonsall was born to Quaker parents Joseph and Eliza Bonsall in Cincinnati, Ohio on December 19, 1833. By age 14, the family was living in Kansas, and within a few years Mr. Bonsall found himself heavily involved in statewide political matters, and was soon dubbed the “Fighting Quaker” for his outspokenness. He married Susan Merrill in 1856, and around this time he studied photography under the esteemed Mathew Brady. After his apprenticeship, he opened a string of short-lived photography shops in Kansas City and Lawrence before teaming with an ambrotypist named John T. Needles. For a brief time, they operated ‘Needles and Bonsall’s Ambrotype and Photograph Gallery’ at the corner of Delaware and Second Streets in Leavenworth. They photographed several prominent local political officials and documented the Leavenworth Constitutional Convention.
In December of 1859, Mr. Bonsall inexplicably ended his partnership with Mr. Needles, and relocated to New Orleans, where he opened another solo gallery. However, heightening regional tensions and his wife’s declining health dictated a return to Cincinnati the following summer. Within a few months after the outbreak of the Civil War, Mr. Bonsall enlisted as a member of the 2nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry’s Company H. He later joined the 14th Army Corps where his photography background proved to be a valuable asset to the Army of the Cumberland commander General William Rosencrans, for whom he photographed maps at their Cincinnati headquarters. He accompanied the army corps to Tennessee, where he began making soldier portraits and battlefield landscapes of several crucial sites, including Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain. He impressively photographed another field photographer, Robert Linn, with his own stereo camera aimed at Lookout Mountain. With a fellow photographer believed to be Henry S. Gibson (who later partnered professionally with Julius E. Dewey), Mr. Bonsall established a tent studio and mobile photographic unit for his field photography. Soldier portraits could be made quickly inside the tent, where sitters would pose for quarter-plate ambrotypes or tintypes beneath a skylight that were developed in the back.
After the war, Mr. Bonsall returned to Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent a few years as an itinerant photographer. He relocated to Arkansas City, where he became a permanent fixture on the state and local political scene, serving at various times as a justice of the peace, councilman, U.S. Commissioner for Kansas, and a police judge. Mr. Bonsall became more of a street photographer during this period, and was one of the first to take photographs of the Indian Territory and its inhabitants. His protégé, William S. Prettyman, became one of the nineteenth century’s most prominent Native American and frontier photographers.
Seventy-five-year-old Isaac H. Bonsall died in Arkansas City on September 6, 1909. The Online Archive of California’s Isaac Bonsall Collection of Photographs includes 51 of his Civil War landscape and Union Army Photographs. Three of Mr. Bonsall’s field albumen prints can be found at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Albumen prints attributed to Mr. Bonsall are also housed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and some of his works were featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's traveling exhibition entitled “Photography and the American Civil War” at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 2013.
2012 Bonsall, I. H. by Millie Mowry (URL: http://www.pa-roots.org/data/read.php?5403,758285).
2017 Camp Photographers by Ron Field (URL: https://militaryimages.atavist.com/camp-photographers-autumn-2017).
2014 Faces of War (URL: https://ronaldscoddington.wordpress.com/tag/north-carolina).
2018 Isaac H. Bonsall (URL: https://images.findagrave.com/photos/2013/320/76761951_138471117620.jpg).
2018 Isaac H. Bonsall (URL: https://www.blouinartsalesindex.com/auctions/Isaac-H-Bonsall-4720046/Robert-Linn-with-his-stereoview-camera,-Lookout-Mountain-1863).
2016 Isaac H. Bonsall, Photographer (URL: http://www.history-sites.net/cgi-bin/bbs62x/ohcwmb/webbbs_config.pl?md=read;ID=1183)
2018 Photographers and Their Work: Isaac H. Bonsall (URL: https://www.iphotocentral.com/common/result.php/256/Isaac+H.+Bonsall/0).
2013 Photography and the American Civil War by Jeff L. Rosenheim (New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art), pp. 114-115.
2005 Pioneer Photographers from the Mississippi to the Continental Divide by Peter E. Palmquist and Thomas R. Kailbourn (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), p. 120.
2012 Robert Linn with his Stereoview Camera, Lookout Mountain, Civil War Photograph by I.H. Bonsall (URL: https://www.cowanauctions.com/lot/111834).
2014 A View from the Civil War (URL: https://19thcenturylives.org).
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