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  Robert H. Vance

Robert H. Vance was born in Baring Plantation, Maine in 1825 to 65-year-old William and his fourth wife, the former Charlotte Holland. Eight years’ later, the family moved to Kennebec County, where the Vance youngsters endured an unsettling childhood that included their parents’ divorce and their father’s remarriage before finally being place under the guardianship of Lot M. Morrill, a future governor of Maine. Mr. Vance may have received his initial photographic instruction from his brother William, himself a successful photographer, and served apprenticeships in various New England studios.

When Mr. Vance was 16, his father died, and after a three-year court battle, he received an inheritance with which he financed his first daguerreotype gallery in Dover, New Hampshire. By age 21, he was operating a studio at 91 Washington Street in Boston during a yearlong partnership with John A. Lerow. After closing Vance and Lerow, Mr. Vance sailed to South America, where he opened studios in Chile, first in Santiago (as Vance & Hoytt) and later in Valparaiso (as Vance & Mason). For a time, he was receiving lucrative commissions from affluent silver mine owners, but his desire to return stateside led Mr. Vance back to California, where he soon accumulated more than 300 images of San Francisco miners. He began marketing himself as a specialist in the highest quality ‘full-plate’ daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. He shrewdly capitalized on the cartes-de-visite craze, and boasted that the glass he used for his ambrotypes was so thick, they “will stand forever.” Although his preference for landscapes was for the large-format camera, he believed small-format cameras produced the best studio portraits.

Within a year, Mr. Vance was operating portrait galleries in the California cities of San Francisco, Sacramento, and San José; in the Nevada towns of Virginia City and Carson City; and later opened a studio in Hong Kong. A natural promotor, Mr. Vance placed print advertisements in Spanish, Chinese, French, and German language publications, and bragged that he used pure silver and specially formulated chemical compounds for his plates, and bragged that his skylight was the largest in the world. Mr. Vance seemed to possess the Midas business touch, and by 1860 had amassed real estate holdings in excess of $40,000. The self-described “father of California photography” gave Carleton Eugene Watkins his first job, but over-speculation in the stock market led to the abrupt closure of his California businesses in 1864. He quietly closed his Nevada studios the next year.

Mr. Vance spent the last decade of his life living and working in New York City, where he exhibited at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition in 1876 and reported his location as 25 Nassau Street. He died suddenly at the age of 51 on July 4, 1877, and was buried in his home state of Maine. Years later, renowned California photographer Ansel Adams lauded Mr. Vance’s artistry and celebrated his “careful thought and selection of viewpoint.” Samples of Robert H. Vance’s California photography can be found at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the California State Library in Sacramento, the Oakland Museum of California, and is featured in the California Heritage Collection at the University of California at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.

2018 1849: Robert Holland Vance to Messrs. Hale & Co. (URL:

1979 California's Peripatetic Photographer: Charles Leander Weed by Peter E. Palmquist, Vol. LVII (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), pp. 194-219.

2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 1440-1441.

2018 Incredible Vintage Studio Portraits of California Young Gold-Rush Prospectors From the 1840s and 1850s (URL:

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), pp. 559-565.

2018 Robert H. Vance (URL:

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2020-05-03 16:07:52

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