Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Photography Genius: George R Lawrence & "The Hitherto Impossible

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Photography Genius: George R Lawrence & "The Hitherto Impossible

Article excerpt

During the early decades of the twentieth century, Chicago photographer George Raymond Lawrence was renowned as an inventor of cameras and innovator of photographic processes. Today, even though his name is virtually lost in photographic history, the genius of George R. Lawrence is recalled in the techniques he perfected and the images he created, many now in private collections and major public repositories.

The Lawrence family descended from John Philip Lorenz, who emigrated from Germany in 1748. George Lawrence, born in Ottawa, Illinois, on February 24, 1868, was the eldest of six children of Margaret Othelia Tritley and Michael B. Lawrence, a LaSalle County farmer and carpenter. Within a few years, the family moved sixty miles east to a Kankakee County farm. In the nearby town of Manteno, George attained an eighth-grade education and the Lawrences attended St. Joseph Catholic Church.1

Among area residents George Lawrence was known as a habitual tinkerer, devising a telegraph system to communicate with friends, making a gun on his own forge, and building sleighs on a metal and woodworking lathe he designed and constructed. He also had a knack for what he called "autonomic" inventions -mechanical devices, including a rudimentary washing machine, for simplifying household tasks.2

At the age of twenty, he moved to Chicago and began working at the Abbott wagon factory in Auburn Park, a suburban area now part of the city. While employed at Abbott, he invented a "sweating" method of attaching iron rims on wooden wheels, a process by which one employee performed the work that previously required the efforts of eight.

In 1890 Lawrence married Alice Herenden, and the following year, after mastering a new hobby of crayon drawings made from photo graphs, he opened The Lawrence Portrait Studio at Yale Avenue and 63rd Street, sharing the space and expenses with photographer Irwin W. Powell. George and Alice became the parents of two sons, Raymond W. and George Lee Lawrence.

When Powell abandoned his business and equipment in 1896, Lawrence learned the basics of darkroom work from a friend and embarked on the career that would define his life. Moving the Lawrence photographic studio to 271 Michigan Avenue about 1901, within three years he relocated to the fourth floor of 300-2-4 Wabash Avenue, at the corner of Van Buren Street in the heart of downtown Chicago. He advertised "The hitherto impossible in photography is our specialty."3

Tall, with a mustache and erect bearing, the energetic Lawrence set about proving the boastful slogan to Chicagoans. From the Wabash Avenue studio, he would over the years highlight his career with four "hitherto impossible" photographic techniques:

"Flashlight Lawrence"

By the late nineteenth century photographers were experimenting with artificial light to enhance their images. In the 1880s, Seneca Ray Stoddard, a noted New York landscape photographer, tried burning magnesium chloride to illuminate outdoor night shots. On his first attempt, photographing the Washington Memorial Arch in New York City, Stoddard sustained burns to his face and hands when the magnesium exploded"but the photograph was entirely successful."4

Photographers using magnesium for indoor photography created volumes of smoke that billowed through the room. And because of the danger of explosion, fire officials banned the use of flash powder at large gatherings. Lawrence, although "knowing nothing of chemistry" began experimenting with various substance combinations, enduring "numerous explosions which burned off his hair, his eyebrows and mustache, and burst his eardrums."5 One of the experiments caused the explosion of a South Side building, but eventually Lawrence developed a magnesium formula "that generated more light and less smoke."6

"In all my life I never started anything I did not finish," he told an associate. The invention earned him recognition as "The Father of Flashlight Photography" for indoor images, along with the nickname "Flashlight Lawrence. …

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