Herbert Wendell Gleason was born to Herbert and Elizabeth Upton Gleason in Malden, Massachusetts on June 5, 1855. He graduated from Williams College in 1877, and continued his religious studies first at the Union Theological Seminary and later at the Andover Theological Seminary, where he graduated in 1882. He married his childhood sweetheart Lulie Wadsworth Rounds the following year. After becoming ordained in 1887, he spent the next several years as a roving pastor at several Midwestern churches. An interest in photography and allegedly a bout of poor health led to the life-changing decision to exchange his clerical collar for a camera. Dry plate photography was in its infancy, and was so developing negatives utilizing this method was considerably less cumbersome than its wet plate counterpart.
The couple moved back to Massachusetts, where Mr. Gleason worked as a stenographer to generate income while he honed his craft by photographing Concord (the hometown of author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau) landscapes in his spare time. By 1901, Mr. Gleason was an itinerant photographer, traveling for long stretches to Alaska (to document goldmining activities), across the American West, and throughout Canada. His health looks completely restored in a photograph on the Illecillewaet Glacier in British Columbia. Mr. Gleason provided the photographs to illustrate Mr. Thoreau’s writings for Houghton Mifflin, which turned out to be both a labor of love and much-needed stable income. His wife often served as his assistant.
Mr. Gleason’s friendship with Stephen T. Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, led to his appointment as Interior Department Inspector, which required several expeditions to national parks throughout the United States. He transported his hefty tools of the trade – which included a minimum of 25 pounds in camera equipment, along with 5x7 plate glass negatives that each weighed a pound each – across the Rocky and Sierra Mountains, Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon, and Mount Rainier, among other places. For the next decade-and-a-half, Mr. Gleason logged more than 200,000 miles, either by motor vehicle, train, horseback, or on foot, depending upon the accessibility of the location. He was also in high demand on the lecture circuit, illustrated many of naturalist John Muir’s writings, and was a frequent contributor to industry publications. Mr. Gleason’s efforts served both photographic enthusiasts and the National Park Service extremely well. An ardent environmental and plant enthusiast, he also photographed his friend Luther Burbank’s horticultural experiments, which were presented as slides during his lectures.
Herbert Wendell Gleason died on October 4, 1937 at the age of 82, leaving behind a rich landscape legacy that was apparently not appreciated by famed photographer Ansel Adams, who lamented, “His work does not excite me at all.” While Mr. Gleason did not always manipulate lighting to its maximum advantage, many of his photographs were taken ‘on the fly,’ in unfamiliar areas in which weather conditions were not always cooperative. His plates are fascinating historical chronicles and are collectively an impressive representation of early twentieth-century landscape photography. More than 6,000 negatives were purchased by the Concord Free Public Library in 1997, which is where they presently reside. A biography on Mr. Gleason, entitled, Taking Sides with the Sun, was written by Dale R. Schwie, and published in July 2017.
1973 Backpacker-3, Vol. I (New York, NY: Backpacker, Inc.), pp. 44-49.
1903 Geography and Geology of Minnesota, Vol. I by Christopher Webber Hall (Minneapolis, MN: H. W. Wilson Company), p. 214.
2017 Gleason's Life, in Brief (URL: https://concordlibrary.org/special-collections/Gleason/Text#Gleason's Life, in Brief).
2017 H.W. Gleason at Thoreau's Cairn, Walden Pond (URL: https://concordlibrary.org/special-collections/gleason/II_1908_5).
1919 The National Geographic Magazine, Vol. XXXV (Washington, DC: National Geographic Society), pp. 355-357.
1920 Photo-Era, Vol. XLV (Boston, MA: Wilfred A. French), p. 227.
2017 Richfield Author Gives Historical Photographer New Exposure (URL: https://www.hometownsource.com/sun_current/news/local/richfield-author-gives-historical-photographer-new-exposure/article_dd85fdcc-d920-544a-af6d-7e9e2dc5cccc.html).
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