“A Village Photographer’s Dream,” Ensign, Sept. 1973, 40
He was a “Mormon bishop with a camera,” this slender, curly-haired village photographer from Springville who could be seen around the turn of the century bouncing over the dusty back roads of rural central Utah in his fashionable “commodore buggy.” His portable gallery-darkroom tent was a familiar sight in such towns as Panguitch, Marysvale, Central, Joseph, Sigurd, Scofield, Annabella, and Monroe. He was in business in Salt Lake City as early as 1877, in Manti in 1881, and was still “making pictures” at his Springville studio when death came to him in 1928.
George Edward Anderson (1860–1928) was one of the most prolific and artistic photographers ever to focus a camera on the Utah scene, but like many good artists, he was more interested in mastering his art than in making money. As a result, he died nearly penniless. In the twilight of his life he had to borrow unexposed plates from fellow photographers so he could continue his quest to capture history rather than pursue more profitable photographic tasks. He passed from the scene quietly, soon to be forgotten. Though some of his pictures, particularly historic views of the Church, are familiar to Latter-day Saints, his name has long been lost in the dark corners of the archives.
But George Edward Anderson’s work has recently been rediscovered. Earlier this year, Rell G. Francis, an art teacher at Springville Junior High School, made mural-size prints from a selection of original Anderson glass plate negatives and displayed them at the annual Mormon Festival of Arts at Brigham Young University, along with some vintage, classic cameras from the photographer’s period of history. The composition, definition, and clarity of the pictures brought a new sense of reality to these frozen moments of time, stimulating widespread comment from festival viewers.
The photographer left behind a rich legacy of some 10,000 to 20,000 glass plate negatives and prints that show in graphic detail and realism what rural Utah and the Mormons were actually like between 1877 and 1928, as seen through the eyes of a gifted photojournalist. During his life he was a bishop, missionary, traveler, and photographer-extraordinaire who frequently made his way along without funds, living by his skills as he sought to document the Mormon scene. He envisioned telling the pictorial story of the Church to the world more than a half-century before it was finally made possible by modern media.
In his travels, Brother Anderson was also adept at photographing groups—children on the steps of their schools, families, reunions, church groups, veterans’ organizations, and conventions. Probably his crowning achievement in this regard came on July 24, 1897, in Salt Lake City, when he photographed the surviving Mormon pioneers of 1847 on their fiftieth anniversary in the Salt Lake Valley. Concerning this picture, his daughter Edda later wrote:
“When dad took one of his most cherished pictures of the Utah Pioneers … C. R. Savage and several other photographers said it could not be done, it was useless to try, he would never get all those old people together long enough, but he did, and each face, even at the very back, stands out so clearly that each one can easily be recognized.”
George Edward Anderson was born in a modest home on Salt Lake City’s Third Avenue October 20, 1860. His father, also named George, was a Scottish convert to the Church; his mother, Mary Ann Thorn, was from England. The elder Andersons came to Utah by covered wagon sometime in the 1850s. Young George Edward, who was to be known throughout life simply as Ed, was the eldest of nine children.
Sometime around 1874, when Ed was just a teenager, he got a job in C. R. Savage’s Pioneer Art Gallery in Salt Lake City. More than likely his first job was as cleanup boy, but later, when he showed a keen interest in photography, Mr. Savage adopted him as an apprentice and taught him what he knew of the art.
At 17, Ed went into business for himself in Salt Lake City, and two years later he won first place in tintype photography at the Territorial Fair. About 1881 he moved his gallery to Manti, but he traveled extensively to surrounding communities. In 1881 he also purchased nine acres of land and a picturesque home in Springville and began dividing his time between the two cities.
Sometime in the mid-1880s, he looked beneath the black cloth of his camera at the ground glass image of a customer at the Manti gallery. Standing before the lens was a pretty girl in a high-necked, long-skirted dress. Though the image was upside down, the handsome young photographer decided the girl was among the loveliest he had ever seen. Thus began the courtship of George Edward Anderson for Olive Lowry, then a coed at the University of Utah. When the Manti Temple opened for marriages October 30, 1888, nine days after dedication, the photographer and Miss Lowry were the second couple married inside that imposing building.
Brother Anderson took his new bride to his home in Springville. In the five years that followed, they had two daughters. (A son was born in 1902.) Olive helped in the business, retouching negatives, keeping the books, and framing finished enlargements.
Financially, these were very lean years for the Andersons. By the beginning of 1894 they found themselves $3,000 in debt. With the business apparently failing, Brother Anderson began traveling through the rural communities to drum up trade. If the customers wouldn’t come to him, he would take his gallery to them. But it probably was not very profitable because it took him more than five years to write off the debt.
Just about the time the business was becoming solvent, another momentous event occurred that changed his whole life. On February 18, 1900, he was made bishop of the Springville Second Ward.
Shortly after he was made bishop, he went to Scofield, Utah, to take pictures of one of the worst mine disasters in history. On May 1, 1900, in Mine Number 4 at a place called Winter Quarters, an explosion ripped through the shaft and drifts, killing 199 miners. The morning of May 2, the photographer caught a train in Springville and headed for the disaster scene. He photographed the tragedy much as a modern photojournalist would today, capturing views of the corpses in a makeshift mortuary, caskets being loaded on carriages and aboard trains, the funeral services, cemetery, and graves.
By the end of 1900 the photography business began picking up, and Brother Anderson reported in his diary that “things are going fairly well.” He had expanded into nearby Spanish Fork, where he maintained a smaller branch gallery. But he was far from a rich man.
Perhaps it was on one of his jaunts into Emery or Piute County or some other rural place that the idea for photographing sites of early Church history came to George Edward Anderson. Or perhaps it was during some spiritual talk in church that the seed took root. Just how the dream came to be no one will ever really know, because several volumes of his diary are missing. He envisioned a complete historical file that could vividly tell the story of the Church in pictures, with a minimum of words. Such photographs, he reasoned, would be invaluable missionary tools to interest untold thousands, perhaps millions, in the Church. But how could these pictures be produced? If only he could visit the historic sites in the eastern United States where the Church was restored, he would know what kinds of pictures to take. If only he could study the landscapes of New York, Pennsylvania, New England, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, where the Prophet Joseph Smith was born, where he had his visions and revelations, where he built his cities, and finally where he spilled his blood! Such a trip would take years and something else quite out of reach—money.
But an opportunity for just such a trip came in 1907, shortly after he was released as bishop of the Second Ward and was called to go on a mission to England. To get there, he would have to pass through the historic Mormon country. He immediately asked for and received permission to stop off and photograph the historic sites.
On April 20, 1907, the photographer climbed aboard a Denver and Rio Grande Western train at Springville and embarked on his mission.
Before he finally left for England in the spring of 1908, Elder Anderson visited and photographed Nauvoo, Kirtland, Independence, New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and many of the historic sites in between. His pictures, many of which were published by the Deseret Sunday School Union in Salt Lake City in 1909 as “Birth of Mormonism in Picture, Scenes, and Incidents in Early Church History,” are a documentary of what these places looked like shortly after the turn of the century, spiced by the human interest of people who lived there at the time.
Before the photographer boarded the steamer for his mission, he went to Palmyra, New York, to visit the Sacred Grove, where Joseph Smith received his first vision.
There he retraced the footsteps of the Prophet himself, as recorded in Church literature. He chose a beautiful, clear day, early in spring, to walk down the country lane leading to the green forest. He set his big view camera up on a hill overlooking the Palmyra countryside and made an exposure of the Sacred Grove far off in the distance. In the foreground three small boys sat in the grass, looking down on a picturesque field of new-mown hay. Then he moved down to the country lane and made a beautifully composed picture of the boys, with the trees as a backdrop. One of the youngsters was shown climbing the fence as the others fished in a small stream.
Elder Anderson then entered the Sacred Grove, praying for inspiration to find the right place to photograph. Finally, as he made his way over a small rise, he found it.
“He told us later that when he saw the sun shining through the trees into a small clearing, he knew this was the right place,” his daughter said. “And this was where he made his pictures.”
The silhouettes of the backlighted trees, with a boy standing in the clearing below, created one of the most striking and dramatic images of the photographer’s entire career.
On his way home from his mission, Elder Anderson stopped off again to make even more pictures of historic Church scenes. And even after he did return to Springville, he was still obsessed with the urge to document Church history, including the construction and completion of the temples at Cardston, Alberta, Canada, and in Arizona. It was while he was in Arizona in 1928 that he became ill and had to return home prematurely. In a few weeks, on May 9, 1928, he died in Springville.
Not until after his death did the completeness and artistic value of his negative collection become known. There were literally tens of thousands of negatives in his gallery files, many of them extraordinarily clear exposures of the birth of Mormonism series that George Edward Anderson had never even gotten around to printing.
A few years ago, about 10,000 original Anderson negatives were discovered in an old home in Salt Lake City. The bulk of the glass plates was turned over to Leo Crandall, then president of the Springville Stake. He has since given them to artist-photographer Rell G. Francis, who has cataloged them, preserved them in envelopes, and is now making prints for sale.
Many of the original negatives have been preserved, either through the Church or through the Bennett Collection at the Utah Historical Society.
After the funeral of George Edward Anderson in 1928, Eva Crandall, a young neighbor, wrote about “Our Village Photographer” for a local newspaper:
“The ground he traveled was hallowed to him. I can almost hear him say, ‘I must have a picture of this sacred spot. … When I return all will be changed. Some of these old landmarks will be obliterated. Who will see them as I see them now … ?’”