William Frank Bacon was born in Bangor, Maine, on June 6, 1843. At age 18, he enlisted in the Union Army’s 2nd Maine Regiment, and saw action at both the Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Chancellorsville. After the war, he studied photography at the Gurney and Son celebrity portrait gallery in New York City. Following an apprenticeship under acclaimed portraitist A. K. P. Trask, he joined his mentor in a Philadelphia-based gallery located at 40 N. Eighth Street.
Within a few years, Conrad M. Gilbert bought out Mr. Trask’s interest in the studio, and Gilbert & Bacon was born. Opening a second location at 820 Arch Street, the team developed a reputation as Philadelphia’s premier portraitists. The congenial Mr. Gilbert attended to the local clientele, while the artistic Mr. Bacon focused on the more illustrious sitters. At the time, Philadelphia’s stage scene was surpassed only by New York City’s Broadway district, and visiting performers would enthusiastically pose for him. He also photographed professional athletes as well as authors, politicians and other notable dignitaries such as legendary Lakota leader Sitting Bull.
By 1878, the firm was granted elite membership into the Philadelphia Photographic Society, and their professional reputation was further cemented by the addition of Milton R. Hemperly, a Pennsylvania native who invented the flashlight magazine lamp and specialized in outdoor photography. Under Mr. Hemperly’s experienced leadership, Gilbert & Bacon began using glossy aristo paper for their studio portraits, which significantly increased their aesthetic value. Mr. Bacon worked closely with Mr. Hemperly on various lighting techniques that accentuated the sitter’s facial features and fashion style. In 1886, Mr. Gilbert – perhaps as a reaction to being the ‘odd man out’ – left to open his own competing studio. However, Mr. Bacon and Mr. Hemperly continued to operate their business as Gilbert & Bacon, eventually adding a studio at 1030 Chestnut Street to their growing photographic empire. Sadakichi Hartmann, who would later become a successful photographer in his own right, received his training as one of Mr. Bacon’s retouchers. A lawsuit filed by W. G. Entrekin in 1891 charged that Mr. Bacon’s use of a continuous background in his portraits infringed upon his letters patent became a cause célèbre within the local artistic community (who also relied upon continuous backgrounds), and the public support Mr. Bacon received as a result strengthened his professional influence. Sadly, within two years, he contracted Bright’s disease, which forced him into retirement. His son, Frank T. Bacon, joined Mr. Hemperly in the day-to-day operations of the Gilbert & Bacon studios.
On September 13, 1900, 57-year-old William Frank Bacon died at his Philadelphia home of complications from Bright’s disease. In addition to his widow and three children, he left behind his studio, which continued to be operated by his son Frank under the Gilbert & Bacon moniker, until 1925. Many of Mr. Bacon’s studio portraits are presently housed at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, CA as well as within several private collections.
1894 American Journal of Photography, Vol. XV (Philadelphia, PA: Thomas H. McCollin & Company), p. 330.
1893 Anthony's Photographic Bulletin, Vol. XXIV (New York, NY: E. & H. T. Anthony & Co.), p. 689.
2018 Gilbert and Bacon (URL: http://cabinetcardphotographers.blogspot.com/2018/08/gilbert-and-bacon.html).
2016 The New Found Photography (URL: http://thenewfoundphotography.blogspot.com/2016/12/gilbert-bacon.html).
1889 Philadelphia and Its Environs (Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott Company), p. 96.
1900 The St. Louis and Canadian Photographer, Vol. XXIV (St. Louis, MO: Mrs. Fitzgibbon-Clark), p. 532.
2019 Studio, Gilbert and Bacon (URL: https://www.broadway.cas.sc.edu/content/studio-gilbert-and-bacon).
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