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  Jacob F. Coonley, Photographer

Jacob Frank “Jay” Coonley was born on January 15, 1830 (some sources report beyond his marriage to Susan Mary Reid, with whom he had at least one child, a daughter named Ada. the birth year as 1832) in Onondaga County, New York, Virtually nothing is known about his background (except that he was of Dutch ancestry), parentage, or education. In 1856, Mr. Coonley was listed as being a landscape painter, and likely during this employment he met successful local photographer George M. Barnard, for whom he touched photographs in oils. Mr. Barnard offered to teach the young artist about photography, which Mr. Coonley later recalled involved extensive chemical knowledge to prepare gun cotton, collodion, and in paper preparation. Within a year the pupil purchased his own gallery, specializing in daguerreotypes and ambrotypes.

When his first studio failed, Mr. Coonley accepted a managerial position at Edward Anthony’s printing business, which specialized in stereoscopes. During this time, while preparing stereoscopic negatives, he also developed a commercially successful albumenizing technique. This led to a position documenting various Pennsylvania Railroad branches; but by the winter of 1861, he, along with his mentor George M. Barnard, was making carte-de-visite negatives for both the firms Anthony & Company and portraitist Mathew Brady. By the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, Mr. Coonley was working exclusively for Mr. Brady at his newly opened Washington, DC gallery, where he made photographs of prominent military and government officials. In 1862, he returned to New York to operate Charles Clarke’s gallery, and married Susan Mary Reid, with whom he had at least one child, a daughter named Ada. After making a series of Niagara Falls stereoscopes in 1864, Mr. Coonley was commissioned by the Civil War Quartermaster to document all railroads and military installations extending from Nashville to Johnsonville, Tennessee; from Atlanta, Georgia to Huntsville, Alabama. His customized boxcar included all the necessary equipment for preparing 9x13” stereoscopic negatives as well as its own engine that allowed him to travel freely throughout the war-torn regions. He later recounted the challenges and frequent interruptions with which he had to contend, such as bridge demolition and surprise cavalry attacks. With the assistance of ambulance drivers, Mr. Coonley could get dangerously close to the combat for his negatives. His wet-plate panoramic views are remarkably clear and provide intricate detail.

After the war, Mr. Coonley spent time in Charleston, South Carolina, in the employment of Quinby & Co. In the late nineteenth century, he moved to Nassau, Bahamas, where he chronicled the landscape, the people, and their customs. He returned to New York in 1904, where he became photography’s resident elder statesman. He participated in several professional organizations, presented lantern slide lectures, and clearly sided with wet plates in the ongoing debate between wet and dry collodion photography. In his later years, Mr. Coonley suffered from several ailments and was in nearly constant pain. While staying at the Bronx home of his daughter, Ada Coonley Davis, the 85-year-old photographer took his own life with a gun on December 2, 1915. Five of his Battle of Johnsonville photographs can be found at the Library of Congress’s Civil War collection, while several others are housed in the United Kingdom’s Cambridge University as well as within private collections. Jacob F. Coonley should be remembered as a photographic artist because he approached the medium more from an artistic than scientific perspective. As he once observed of such an artist, “His work tells its own story.” Mr. Coonley’s Civil War photographs in particular continue to tell vivid stories of people, places, and events during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history.

2020 Beautiful Photographs of the Bahamas (URL:

2020 In Memoriam [Confederate Flag CDV by Photographer J. F. Coonley of Savannah, Georgia] (URL:

2015 Jacob Frank “Jay” Coonley (URL:

2019 Johnsonville by Jerry T. Wooten (El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie), pp. 54-55.

2001 Partners with the Sun: South Carolina Photographers, 1840-1940 by Harvey S. Teal (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press), p. 130.

1880 The Photographic News, Vol. XXVI (London, UK: Piper and Carter), pp. 663-664.

1880 The Photographic Times, Vol. X (New York, NY: Scovill Manufacturing Co.), p. 273.

1881 The Photographic Times, Vol. XI (New York, NY: Scovill Manufacturing Co.), p. 50.

2017 Silent Witness by Ron Field, (Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing)pp. 133-134, 220-221, 290-291.

1907 Wilson’s Photographic Magazine, Vol. XLIV (New York: Edward L. Wilson), pp. 105-108.

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2020-05-17 10:09:30

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