19th-century Minnesota photographers’ images up for auction

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Many of Minnesota’s first settlers were lumberjacks from Maine who had cut down forests in the East – their axes and saws sharp and hungry for more pines.

Benjamin Franklin Upton was different. When he moved in his thirties from Maine to Minnesota Territory in 1856, he was hungry to capture frontier images through his photography.

“He traveled the state in a wagon specially built to carry his photographic equipment and camping gear, taking invaluable views of the people and scenes of Minnesota,” wrote the late Alan Woolworth, historian and archaeologist of the Minnesota Historical. Society.

During his nearly 20 years in Minnesota, Upton developed thousands of negatives in his custom-equipped, horse-drawn wagon. “He made many sights of enduring historic value to Minnesota,” Woolworth wrote.

Upton’s surviving collection includes portraits of Ojibwe and Dakota people, including those incarcerated at Fort Snelling after the American-Dakota War of 1862. Upton photographed scenic landscapes of St. Anthony Falls and St. Paul, photographed soldiers traveling to the Civil War and captured footage of river bridges and the 1860 State Fair at Fort Snelling.

Now, 112 years after Upton died at 92, nearly four dozen of his images are up for auction on April 27. They belonged to railroad baron James J. Hill and were housed in his stately St. Paul Reference Library, which opened in 1921 but closed in 2018 and was sold last year to historic preservation property developers.

According to the Revere Auctions online catalog (tinyurl.com/UptonAuction, Lots 39-68), most images of waterfalls, Red River carts, and landscapes are expected to fetch between $200 and $400, with opening bids set at $25. The modest prices reflect the fact that Upton’s photographs are widely held, including in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, and even the British Museum.

However, bidding starts at $500 for Lot 62: Upton’s 1862 photograph showing river mist shrouding the fenced yard of Fort Snelling tepees where Dakota refugees were held after the Six Weeks War (tinyurl .com/UptonFort).

“This particular photograph is extraordinary – a rare moment,” said Sean Blanchet, co-owner of St. Paul-based Revere Auctions. “With so much focus now on Native American history and the conflict, and the incredible detail in the photography, this one is simply mesmerizing.”

Born in 1818 in Dixmont, Maine, Upton launched his career working with daguerreotypes – the precursor to the photographic process. He arrived in St. Anthony, the riverside village that predated Minneapolis, in 1856 and soon moved to Big Lake with his wife, Sarah, and the first three of their five children. They also spent time at a cabin on Lake Minnetonka.

Unlike most photographers of this era who shot portraits in their studios, Upton made his living venturing into the field for images of Minnehaha Falls, Native Americans, soldiers and other subjects in the early years. of State.

Upton moved to Florida in 1875 but visited Minnesota in 1901 at age 82, when he explained his process to fellow photographer Edward Bromley. Considered Upton’s biographer, Bromley rescued and preserved Upton’s early scrapbooks and donated them to the Minnesota Historical Society.

In two 1901 articles in the Minneapolis Sunday Times based on interviews with Bromley, Upton recounted how he had converted his cart into a portable darkroom, dragging pieces of glass and chemicals to develop negatives.

“He would hitch up his horse, drive to the point where he was to take the picture,” Bromley wrote, describing how Upton would then sneak into his homemade camera, smear a glass plate with chemicals and cover the lens with a yellow screen until it is ready to do its exposure.

If any part of the landscape “needed more time to imprint on the plate”, Upton would protect and manipulate the image. Think of the filters on the cameras of your mobile phones.

“After the exposure he simply had to turn to his right under the yellow light passing through one side of the camera and develop the plate on the spot,” Bromley wrote, “the result being… a work of ‘art.” His negatives, most of which were later destroyed, are “almost worth their weight in gold” if found in good condition, Bromley wrote.

“If Upton had been content to sit in a ‘gallery’ and devote himself to portraiture, much of the earliest history of the state – pretty much everything, in fact, that is read at from photographs – would never have been available to us. later arrivals. Every day except Sunday when the weather was favorable it was ‘outside’.’

This month’s auction has revived interest in work done by Upton, who died in 1910 in Connecticut.

“He could take any old box, put a lens on it, and go out and take some great shots with it,” Bromley wrote.

Curt Brown’s Tales of Minnesota History appear every Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at [email protected] His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war, and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.

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