James Fennimore was born in London, England on September 7, 1849. During his teens, his family relocated to America, settling in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where young James was introduced to photography. By age 16, he and his family were on the move again, making Salt Lake City, Utah their home. Mr. Fennemore became employed by Savage and Ottinger, the city’s most successful studio, located at 12 & 14 Main Street.
In the autumn of 1871, Mr. Fennimore’s photographic prowess made a profound impression upon explorer Major John Wesley Powell, after seeing his prints of 250 double-exposure negatives taken by photographer E. O. Beaman from his most recent expedition. In later years, Mr. Fennemore recalled being amazed by the picturesque terrain featured in the negatives, but equally appalled by their poor print quality. He painstakingly created an extraordinary set of prints that exceeded Mr. Powell’s expectations so much that he invited the fledgling photographer to replace Mr. Beaman and join his 1872 expedition. In early March of that year, the team arrived in Kanab, Utah, no small feat considering the blizzard-like conditions they encountered along the way. Their objective was to map the route along the Grand Canyon and photograph the views from the Canyon’s rim. Mr. Fennemore later asserted he invented the first dry-plate camera along the way, but photographic historians dispute his claim.
Along with his assistant and apprentice John “Jack” Hillers, Mr. Fennemore trekked over broken lava to capture images of the Canyon from both sides. After completing the regional mapping, the expedition moved on, arriving in Paria, Utah in July. The rigors of mountain climbing were not well-suited to the frail photographer, who was also deathly afraid of heights. By mid-July, the ailing chief photographer relinquished his duties to Mr. Hillers.
Returning to Salt Lake City, Mr. Fennemore returned to studio photography for a few years, before moving to Beaver, Utah, where he opened his own gallery and married Sarah Emmaline Stoddard in 1880. The family would grow to include four children. Specializing now in portraiture, Mr. Fennemore documented the 1877 execution of Mormon leader John Doyle Lee, who had been convicted of orchestrating the region’s infamous ‘Mountain Meadows Massacre.’ Mr. Fennemore had befriended Mr. Lee during the Powell Expedition, and the Lee family became his devoted caregivers when he became ill. He poignantly chronicled Mr. Lee’s last moments for his distraught family, and these have become Mr. Fennemore’s most enduring images.
Despite his precarious health, Mr. Fennemore maintained his photographic business until the 1930s, but had to supplement his income by operating a sawmill and local retail store. Increasing enfeebled, the 91-year-old Mr. Fennimore moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where he lived with his son until his death on January 25, 1941. Samples of James Fennemore’s work may be found in the collections of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California.
1988 Arizona Highways (Phoenix, AZ: Arizona Highway Department), p. 19.
1949 Beaman, Fennemore, Hillers, Dellenbaugh, Johnson and Hattan by William Culp Darrah, Volumes XVI-XVII (Utah Historical Quarterly), pp. 491-503.
2019 Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith by Thomas G. Alexander (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press), p. 179.
1969 The Man Who Rediscovered America by John Upton Terrell (New York, NY: Weybright and Talley), p. 128.
2019 "Music Temple," A Side Ravine in Glen Canyon. Utah. circa 1870s (URL: https://www.sciencebase.gov/catalog/item/51dc87dbe4b097e4d383963f).
2009 Painters of Utah's Canyons and Deserts by Donna L. Poulton & Vern G. Swanson (Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith), p. 14.
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. 478.
1977 Sunstone Magazine, Vol. III (Salt Lake City, UT: Sunstone Education Foundation, Inc.), p. 13.
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