Born into a farming family in Amherst, New Hampshire on October 22, 1835, George Fiske enjoyed a relatively uneventful childhood in his bucolic New England surroundings. At the age of 22, he ventured west to Sacramento, California, where he began working as a banking clerk for his half-brother Thomas. It so happened that Thomas Fiske & Co. was situated near the Vance & Weed Photographic Gallery, co-owned by Robert H. Vance and Charles Leander Weed, the first photographer of the neighboring Yosemite Valley. This likely provided young Mr. Fiske with the necessary instruction to pursue his own photographic career.
By 1864, Mr. Fiske was an itinerant freelancer, and after a brief return to farming in Santa Clara, he resurfaced in San Francisco as Carleton E. Watkins’ photographic assistant. After about a year, he entered the employ of Thomas Houseworth & Co., where he perfected the firm’s trademark landscape stereo views. Mr. Fiske also teamed with Eadweard Muybridge for a series of Yosemite Valley photographs. Within a whirlwind two-year period, he lost both parents, a half-brother, and married Elmira “Myra” Morrill. He returned to work for his good friend Carleton E. Watkins’ Yosemite Art Gallery in 1874, but the reunion was short-lived. Mr. Watkins was forced to declare bankruptcy and relinquish his gallery, and Mr. Fiske refused to work for the new owners, Isaiah West Taber and Thomas H. Boyd.
In 1879, Mr. Fiske and his wife moved to the Yosemite Valley, which had proven to be a boundless source of inspiration for the photographer. His friendship with concession owner Galen Clark allowed him to make a decent living selling his landscapes and taking portraits of the region’s many tourists. At around this time, 8x10 albums were becoming fashionable, which further increased the demand for Mr. Fiske’s prints. Mr. Fiske became somewhat of a tourist attraction himself, and was often seen by campers unloading his camera equipment from a wheelbarrow dubbed the “Cloud Chasing Chariot. In the wintertime, his portable studio became a sleigh pulled by a burro named ‘Honest John.’ For a time, life was very good.
Sadly, Mr. Fiske’s later years were fraught with tragedy. In 1896, his wife of more than two decades died of cancer. However, within a year, he met and married Caroline Paull, and the couple enjoyed a few peaceful years in Yosemite before fire destroyed both their home and Mr. Fiske’s studio. He lost two cameras; several lenses; and most significantly, most of his negatives, plates, and prints. In 1910, his best friend and benefactor Galen Clark passed away, and his second wife died seven years’ later. The diagnosis of a brain tumor dealt a mortal blow to George Fiske, who ended his life with a gunshot on October 21, 1918, the day before his 83rd birthday. He is buried at Yosemite’s Pioneer Cemetery.
Several years later, a young photographer named Ansel Adams discovered, much to his dismay, that Mr. Fiske’s few remaining negatives were being stored in a sawmill near Yosemite National Park. He remarked that a sawmill was not the safest place to store such valuable negatives, and suggested they be transferred to the Yosemite Museum. His pleas were ignored, and as a final bit of tragic irony, those negatives also perished in a fire. Ansel Adams later declared that he deemed George Fiske’s Yosemite works as superior to those of Watkins and Muybridge, explaining that Mr. Fiske, in his opinion, “had the better eye.”
2018 Masterworks of Photography: George Fiske (URL: https://photographymuseum.com/fiskelg.html).
2000 Pioneer Photographers of the Far West: A Biographical Dictionary, 1840-1865 by Peter E. Palmquist and Thomas R. Kailbourn (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), p. 230.
2018 Views of Yosemite by George Fiske, ca. 1880-1890 (URL: https://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/tf238nb395).
2018 Yosemite Photographers in The Early Days (URL: http://www.undiscovered-yosemite.com/yosemite-photographers.html).
2018 Yosemite Tales: George Fiske – Photographer (1835-1918) (URL: http://www.yosemitetales.com/hiking-biking/george-fiske-photographer-1835-1918).
2004 Yosemite Valley by Leroy Radanovich (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing Co.), pp. 109-114.
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