Benjamin Lomax Horsley Dabbs was born on November 30, 1839 in London, England. After moving his family to the United States, George Dabbs became one of America's most successful photographic supply merchants, first as an employee of New York's L. Chapman & Company and later in his own Philadelphia-based company. After receiving a public school education in New York, the young Dabbs began working in his father's store before moving to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in April of 1861, where he opened his own lucrative supply and ambrotype sales business. Later that year, he purchased property from a man named Rorah, which he transformed within the next three years into Pennsylvania’s largest photographic gallery.
Now firmly established, the prosperous Mr. Dabbs asked Dr. John Dickson for his daughter Sadie's hand in marriage, and their January 21, 1868 wedding was the local social event of the season. The happy couple would later have nine children. Mr. Dabbs enjoyed so much success with his portraits, he sold his supply business in 1869 and focused solely upon photography, opening a lavish studio at 602 Liberty Street in 1876. Mr. Dabbs traveled extensively to Europe, and his international reputation grew as he photographed some of the world's most important government officials and entrepreneurs. He had been a close personal friend of President Abraham Lincoln, and his portrait of Andrew Carnegie was widely regarded as the best photograph ever taken of the steel tycoon turned philanthropist.
While Mr. Dabbs was known for his natural-looking portraits, he made it clear that he approached photography from both artistic and business perspectives. In 1896, he explained that he did not believe in telling customers they would not be charged for re-sittings because he believed, "The public do not value what they can get for nothing." He further explained that since all specialists in their chosen professions such as doctors and lawyers charge for their time and services whether successful or not, photographers should be no different. When re-sittings were necessary or requested, Mr. Dabbs argued a photographer should be adequately compensated for his time, equipment, and professional service.
Sadly, Mr. Dabbs' lavish studio was destroyed on May 2, 1897 by the worst fire Pittsburgh had experienced in nearly half a century. Thankfully, Mr. Dabbs' printing and finishing departments were housed elsewhere, and because most of his negatives and card stock were also stored at another location, his inventory losses were minimal. Mr. Dabbs' later years were sadly marred by rheumatism and various other debilitating ailments, which brought his active lifestyle to a halt. Sixty-year-old B. L. H. Dabbs died on December 13, 1899, and his contributions to Pittsburgh's photographic history are remembered fondly in his adopted hometown. His celebrated portrait of Andrew Carnegie is proudly displayed at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art.
1892 All Sorts of Pittsburgers (Pittsburg, PA: The Leader All Sorts Co.), p. 233.
1868 The Medical and Surgical Reporter, Vol. XVIII (Philadelphia: Alfred Martien, Printer), p. 112.
1896 Photographic Mosaics (New York: Edward L. Wilson), pp. 153-154.
1900 The St. Louis and Canadian Photographer, Vol. XXIV (St. Louis, MO: Mrs. Fitzgibbon-Clark), p. 44.
1897 Wilson's Photographic Magazine, Vol. XXXIV (New York: Edward L. Wilson), pp. 269, 288.
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