William Nicholson Jennings was born to William and Sara Ann Palmer Nicholson Jennings in Yorkshire, England on November 16, 1860. His parents owned a wool mill which became a casualty of the ‘Panic of 1876,’ and so the bankrupt family packed up what remained of their belongings and traveled to the United States, settling in Philadelphia. The junior Jennings became a stenographer and typist at John Wanamaker’s retail store. At age 21, he picked up a 4x5 camera and began making his own glass plates. There is no evidence of Mr. Jennings ever receiving any formal instruction, but the determined young man educated himself through book study and visits to the Eastman Dry Plate & Film Company in Rochester, New York. He later recalled that after making what he regarded as excellent photographs of Niagara Falls, the negatives had become alarmingly stained which negatively affected the aesthetic value of the images. He learned about paper negatives from George Eastman himself, was introduced to the company’s new product line of transparent paper, and was taught the process of stripping film.
When Mr. Jennings decided to take the first photograph of lightning on the night of September 2, 1882, he received international attention and praise. The Pennsylvania Railroad took notice and hired him in 1885 first as a surveyor and later as official photographer, a position he held until 1896. As part of his documentarian duties, he was sent to Johnstown to photograph the aftermath of the city’s historic flood. He also worked as a freelancer for several construction companies throughout the Delaware Valley, and became the local expert in aerial photography, capturing panoramic images from a hot-air balloon. Mr. Jennings collaborated with Frederick E. Ives to develop a photochromoscope and Kromskop color photography. He left the Pennsylvania Railroad to open a Kromskop studio, but the business failed within a few years, prompting a return to freelancing. He finally married, and within a few years, he and his wife Mary extended their family to include three children. Acting as an official photographer during World War I, Mr. Jennings’ images are believed to have been crucial in the development of U.S. aerial reconnaissance.
During the 1920s, Mr. Jennings became something of a goodwill ambassador for the ‘City of Brotherly Love,’ and was named Philadelphia’s official photographer for its lavish sesquicentennial celebration. In 1930, he received the John Price Wetherill Medal from the Franklin Institute for his photographic study of lightning, which disproved the notion it had a zigzag pattern. He was an active member of the Franklin Institute and one of the founders of the American Museum of Photography. He shared his considerable historical photographic knowledge with several industry publications, as he described his arduous process of “shooting against the light,” which required a vast inventory of isochromatic, non-halation, and ordinary rapid plates. He explained that early aerial photographs required a 6½ x 8½ folding camera with bellows extending at least 24 inches, but that no tripod was required as a ledge or windowsill worked quite nicely. Mr. Jennings recommended an astigmatic lens with a focal length of 11½ inches and lauded the Thornton-Pickard ‘roller-blind’ shutter for its speed and controlled exposures. Philadelphia’s ‘grand old man of photography’ continued working well into his twilight years, and recorded the Philadelphia Phillies’ baseball team’s first home night game at Shibe Park at the age of 79. He spent his last years living quietly in Philadelphia until his death on September 9, 1946 at the age of 85. Although the name William Nicholson Jennings may not be well-known throughout international photography circles, his photographic contributions remain a local treasure in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia.
1915 Camera: A Practical Magazine for Photographers, Volume XIX (Philadelphia, PA: The Camera Publishing Company), pp. 549-551.
2016 Capturing “Jove’s Autograph”: Late Nineteenth-Century Lightning Photography and Electrical Agency by Laura Turner Igoe (http://journalpanorama.org/capturing-joves-autograph-late-nineteenth-century-lightning-photography-and-electrical-agency).
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 773-774.
2013 From the Mainline: A Contemporary Survey of the Pennsylvania Railroad by Michael Froio (URL: https://michael-froio-41f5.squarespace.com/blog/?offset=1368504086000).
1915 The Photo-Miniature, Vol. V (New York, NY: Tennant and Ward), pp. 145-173.
1897 The Photographic Times, Vol. XXIX (New York, NY: The Photographic Times Publishing Association), p. 44.
1939 Popular Science, Vol. CXXXV (New York, NY: Popular Science Publishing Co., Inc.), p. 95.
2013 The Rise of Balloon Photography in Philadelphia by Ken Finkel (https://www.phillyhistory.org/blog/index.php/page/27).
2016 William N. Jennings Scrapbook, Photographs, and Negatives (URL: http://dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/pacscl/ead.pdf?id=PACSCL_HSP_FI7511).
2018 William Nicholson Jennings Photograph Collection (URL: http://www.lcpimages.org/inventories/jennings).
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