William Mollock Godfrey was born to Fanny Mollock and Thomas Hartle Godfrey near Minisink, New York on November 9, 1825. Six years’ later, the senior Godfrey moved his wife and five children to Washtenaw County, Michigan, where his young son studied dentistry. By age 25, young Mr. Godfrey had established a dental practice in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is where he developed an interest in the daguerreotype. It is believed his love of the American West began after seeing stereographs that were featured in a Detroit gallery. Wanting to see (and photograph) the area for himself, Mr. Godfrey joined a migrant group who harnessed a team of oxen and headed West.
Arriving in Placerville (dubbed ‘Hangtown’), California in the fall of 1850, Mr. Godfrey supplemented his income by goldmining, frequently leasing his daguerreotype equipment for funding. His affection for the landscape is apparent in his stereo views. His daguerreotype of an early Sacramento train in 1855 is believed to be among the first of its kind, and was later published in Sunset Magazine. In 1857, Mr. Godfrey entered into a brief partnership with a Mr. Royse, and trading as Royse and Godfrey, this firm specialized in ambrotypes and stereo cards. Returning to Placerville in 1860, Mr. Godfrey made a series of stereographs of Los Angeles, believed to be the earliest such images. His Sunbeam Gallery, located at 55 North Main Street, distinguished itself with incomparable landscapes and expansive outdoor views. At various times, Mr. Godfrey partnered with Stephen A. Rendall and Henry T. Payne, and his advertising boasted, “Daguerreotypes, Photographs, Ambrotypes, and Cartes de Visite, executed at the shortest notice.”
Mr. Godfrey was able to capture the ‘small-town’ ambiance of early Los Angeles in his portraits, but was unable to generate sufficient income to make his studio profitable. In 1850, he moved to San Bernardino, where he briefly owned a gallery with Maurice A. Franklin while operating a far more lucrative dental office with Dr. Alma Whitlock. He married Lucia Huntington, 25 years his junior, on April 25, 1866, and the couple would eventually have eight children. In the 1870s, Mr. Godfrey and William Adams Vale operated the Godfrey and Vale studio in San Bernardino. His ties to the Los Angeles area continued, and he received a commission to photograph Los Angeles Harbor for the U. S. Corps of Engineers. He entered into another short-lived partnership with Dudley P. Flanders in 1872; and three years’ later, he sold his interest in the Sunbeam Gallery. In his later years in San Bernardino, he worked intermittently as a photographer and miner. William Godfrey died from injuries he sustained in a fall on November 4, 1900, five days before his 75th birthday. Several of Mr. Godfrey’s stereographs can be found in the Frank Q. Newton, Jr. collection, as well as in, among others, the Huntington Library and the Casa del Rancho Los Cerritos collections in Long Beach, California.
2004 Photographing Farmworkers in California by Richard Steven Street (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), p. 3.
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. 262-263.
2005 San Fernando, Rey de España: An Illustrated History by Kenneth E. Pauley and Carol M. Pauley (Norman, OK: Arthur H. Clark Company), p. 345.
2014 This May Be the First Photograph of Los Angeles by Nathan Masters (URL: https://gizmodo.com/this-may-be-the-first-photograph-of-los-angeles-1560355336).
1992 William M. Godfrey Early California Photographer 1825-1900 by Frank Q. Newton, Jr. (URL: http://www.lawesterners.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/188-SUMMER-1992.pdf).
Copyright © 2002 - 2019 Historic Camera