A Village Photographer’s Dream

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“A Village Photographer’s Dream,” Liahona, June 1997, 17

Faith in Every Footstep 1847–1997

A Village Photographer’s Dream

He was a “Mormon bishop with a camera,” this slender, curly-haired village photographer from Springville, Utah, who could be seen around the turn of the century bouncing over the dusty back roads of rural central Utah in his buggy. His portable gallery-darkroom tent was a familiar sight in small towns throughout the region. He was in business in Salt Lake City as early as 1877; in Manti, Utah, in 1881; and was still “making pictures” at his Springville, Utah, studio when death came to him in 1928. He left behind a rich legacy of more than 30,000 glass-plate negatives and prints.

During his life George Edward Anderson (1860–1928) was a husband, father, bishop, missionary, traveler, and photographer-extraordinaire who frequently made his way without funds, living by his skills. He was one of the most prolific and artistic photographers ever to focus a camera on the Utah scene, but he came to dream of something even bigger.

Just how the dream came to be no one really knows, but Brother Anderson 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 study the landscapes where the Prophet Joseph Smith was born, where he had his visions and revelations, where he built cities, and finally where he spilled his blood! Such a trip would take years and something else quite out of reach—money.

An opportunity for just such a trip came in 1907. Shortly after Brother Anderson was released as bishop of his ward in Springville, Utah, he was called to go on a mission to England. To get there, he would have to pass through historic Mormon country. Receiving permission to stop off and photograph the historic sites, he visited and photographed Nauvoo, Kirtland, Independence, New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania, and many sites in between. His pictures 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.

On his way home from his mission, Elder Anderson stopped off again to make even more pictures of historic Church scenes. And even after his return to Springville, he was still obsessed with the urge to document Church history. While he was in Arizona in 1928 to photograph the construction and completion of the Arizona Temple, he became ill and had to return home prematurely. He died 9 May 1928 in Springville, Utah.

After the funeral of George Edward Anderson, 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?’”

Some of the information included in this article came from Rell G. Francis, The Utah Photographs of George Edward Anderson (1979); and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, T. Jeffery Cottle, and Ted D. Stoddard, editors, Church History in Black and White (1995).

All photographs are in the Anderson Collections, LDS Church Archives and Brigham Young University

In 1907, Elder Anderson entered the Sacred Grove near Palmyra, New York, praying for inspiration to find the right place to photograph. As he made his way over a small rise, he found it. The silhouettes of the backlit trees with a boy standing in the clearing below created one of the most striking and dramatic images of the photographer’s entire career.

A family portrait, taken while George Edward Anderson was a bishop, shortly before he left on his mission to England. From left: Sister Olive Lowry Anderson, Edda, G. Lowry, Bishop Anderson, and Eva.

Retracing the footsteps of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Elder Anderson chose a beautiful, clear day, early in spring, to walk down the small country lane leading to the green forest near Palmyra, New York. He made a beautifully composed picture of three small boys, with the trees of the Sacred Grove as a backdrop.

The Susquehanna River in Harmony, Pennsylvania, where Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery received the Aaronic Priesthood and were baptized.

Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith’s farm near Palmyra, New York.

The Hill Cumorah near Palmyra, New York, where the Book of Mormon plates were first revealed to Joseph Smith.

Nauvoo House, dock, and steamboat landing at the end of Main Street in Nauvoo, Illinois.

Kirtland Temple and cemetery in Kirtland, Ohio.

In 1907 missionaries and members visit the Mansion House in Nauvoo, Illinois, where the Prophet Joseph Smith lived for the last year of his life.

Carthage Jail in Carthage, Illinois, where the Prophet Joseph and his brother Hyrum were martyred by a mob.

James Walker, town barber in Mt. Pleasant, Utah, demonstrates how he kept the brethren cleanshaven.

The Jex and Sons Broom Factory, Spanish Fork, Utah, 1896.

In documenting pioneer lifestyles, George Edward Anderson encouraged families to display some of their possessions. This unidentified family in Castle Gate, Utah, shows rocking chairs by the front door of their well-built house, a high chair for the baby, a horse, and, by chance, freshly laundered clothes drying in the sun.

Mrs. Albert Manwaring and her children, Springville, Utah, 1903. Albert Manwaring received a copy of this family portrait while serving a mission in England.

Stanley Gardner’s section crew, Indianola, Utah, 1900.

The surviving Mormon pioneers of 1847 on the 50th anniversary of their arrival. Concerning this photograph, taken 100 years ago, on 24 July 1897, Edda Anderson wrote: “When dad took one of his most cherished pictures of the Utah Pioneers … 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.”