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  J. Jex Bardwell

John Jex Bardwell was born in Cheapside, London on October 24, 1824. As he would later recall in an autobiographical profile, "I celebrated with much howling and kicking, and from all accounts have kept it up more or less ever since." Finding himself increasingly at odds with the prevailing politics of the period, the senior Bardwell decided to move his family to the United States, which he felt more closely represented his views on democracy. Settling in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1834, the father became successful in the brewing/distilling industry while his son sold newspapers and later worked in a a physician's office. He was sent to Suffolk, England to complete his studies, and upon his return to Michigan, he joined his father as a brewer and distiller.

However, an introduction to the relatively new daguerreotype process changed the young man's life forever. In 1845, Mr. Bardwell returned to London to settle his recently deceased father's estate when he noticed a daguerreotype hanging in a doctor's window. He wasted no time in taking instruction from local daguerreotypist John Wharry Egerton. He returned to the United States the following year and married Emma Brown. Mr. Bardwell received his first daguerreian camera as repayment for a debt. Shortly thereafter, he opened the Jones & Bardwell gallery in Marshall, Michigan, of which by 1851 he was the sole owner. At around this time, he began experimenting with stereoscopes and optical lanterns, and hosted what what is believed to be one of the first lantern demonstrations at Detroit City Hall. When Mr. Bardwell became manager of Joel E. Whitney's studio in St. Paul, Minnesota, he became an accomplished photographer of Native Americans, who were each paid the English equivalent of 10 cents to pose for portraits that were later sold for $2 each. He also experimented with Frederick Scott Archer's wet plate process while manufacturing his own soluble gun-cotton and adding gutta percha to his baths.

By 1854, Mr. Bardwell was back in Marshall, where he opened and operated a gallery for the next six years before setting in Detroit, focusing on photography full time. He became an eloquent spokesman for photography as art and science, and wrote several articles for the leading photography journals of the period. He also became involved in industry politics, most notably the Cutting bromide-collodion process patent issue, which remained under the strict licensing control of inventor James Cutting, much to the financial detriment of many struggling photographers. In protest, Mr. Bardwell closed his gallery, and at an 1867 convention, he produced documents from his own extensive archive that proved bromide had been used since the advent of the daguerreotype, thereby nullifying the patent and its oppressive licensing fees. His efforts were successful, and Mr. Cutting's patent was not renewed.

In his later years, Mr. Bardwell worked as a photographer for the Michigan Central Railroad, launched the Bardwell Photo Engraving Company, and taught a photography course at the Detroit Museum of Art, none of which were lucrative ventures. In appreciation for leading the defeat of the Cutting patent, members of the Photographers' Association of America organized a Jex Bardwell Fund to aid the impoverished family. Contributions fell short of purchasing a new house, but were used to pay for a few months' rent and later to purchase a cemetery plot for Mrs. Bardwell, who died in 1899. Her 78-year-old husband joined her three years' later, on December 14, 1902.

1894 Ann Arbor Argus (URL:

2014 Early Photography in Early Detroit: J. Jex Bardwell (URL:

1898 Photographic Times, Vol. XXX (New York: The Photographic Times Publishing Association), p 38.

2005 Pioneer Photographers from the Mississippi to the Continental Divide (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), pp. 88-90.

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2014-06-29 14:24:51

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