Seneca Ray Stoddard

CitizenshipUnited States
Cultural HeritageEuropean-American
Light Work RelationshipRobert B. Menschel Gallery, 1987




Photographer Seneca Ray Stoddard, was an example of the multi-faceted, highly productive individual so characteristic of nineteenth century America. His work focused on documenting the Adirondacks through photography and writing.

He published two guide books entitled, 'Lake George, Ticonderoga, Past and Present' and 'The Adirondacks, Illustrated', which combined a very readable account of his adventures in the northern wilderness with practical information on what to see and where to stay.

Stoddard's slide lecture before the New York Assembly on February 25, 1892, along with subsequent dramatic shows with slides projected on a huge screen, was a factor in getting legislation for the creation of the Adirondack Park, which today covers some six million acres.

With his masterful technique, coupled with a limited background in drawing and painting, he photographically interpreted the Adirondacks in ways that have earned him a place in the visual and Adirondack history. Whether of high peaks, gentle valleys, quiet waters or sublime chasms, his images continue to evoke a sense of awe, and when he included tourists in the photographs, he usually made it clear that they were.....guests.

John Fuller (c)1987
SUNY College-Oswego

Fast-paced summer Northway traffic to the Adirondacks is the modern equivalent of the lengthy journey late nineteenth century vacationers made by rail, steamboat, stagecoach, and foot to reach woods and water for adventure and renewal. The heightened anticipation of that earlier journey is recounted in a Seneca Ray Stoddard guidebook:

"Off for Lake George! How the heart bounds and the pulse quickens at the very sound of the words that bring with them thought of the holy lake. (Lake George, 1873,6)"

Between 1646, when St.Issac Jogues called these waters Lac du St. Sacrement, and today's carnival land at the foot of Lake George, is the period when Stoddard photographically revealed a delicate balance between raw nature and the signs of civilization ranging from farmhouse simple to Second Empire extravagant. 

For Stoddard, the journey from his Glens Falls, N.Y. studio to Lake George meant about 10 miles of stagecoach travel north on a plank road. Stoddard, who was born in Saratoga County in 1843, moved to the lumber town on the Hudson River in 1864, after working in Troy, N.Y. for two years as a railroad car director. He probably learned basic photography techniques from a local photographer, and his work soon changed from "House, Sign and Ornamental Painting" to that of landscape photography and guidebook publishing. 

In 1873 Stoddard's guidebook, Lake George: Ticonderoga: Past and Present, appeared, and he pursued his exploration of the Adirondacks with pen, pencil, brush, and especially, camera. The following year brought fourth The Adirondacks: Illustrated, which combined a very readable account of his adventures in the northern wilderness with practical information on what to see and where to stay. 

Appreciatin of wilderness is found in both Stoddard's writings and photographs, but he seldom apotheosizes the Adirondacks as his predecessor, The Rev. William H. H. Murray, whose Adventures in the Wilderness, 1869, both attracted and disenchanted tourists as they sought, but seldom found, a new Eden. Stoddard made sure that woodcuts based on photographs of natural wonders were tempered with humorous anecdotes involving black flies, mosquitoes, aching muscles and sore feet. Meanwhile, his growing list of stereo views and larger prints, available world wide were aides-memoire to tourists who might well perceive in those pictures a natural paradise. 

In The Adirondacks he announced with good reason that his "Crystal" stereographs were the best. He was, after all, in business, as boldly shown in his sketchily drawn logo in which he rides a camera on tripod while chasing a winged "money bug." Quill pen, palette, painter's mahlstick, and possibly a Masonic triangular emblem are the "weapons" of this Victorian Don Quixote.

Stoddard's photographs won acclaim, and such important publications as Anthony's Photographic Bulletin (Nov. 1871, 370) promoted his Lake George landscapes, while the June 1876 issue of the Philadelphia Photographer praised his exhibit at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. New York papers described his skillful use of magnesium flash for lighting the Statue of Liberty in 1890. Of the 12,000 stereo photographers active between 1860-1890, Stoddard made Farrah's list of 29 "Noted Stereo Photographers." (William Darrah, Stereo Views, 1964)

What separates Stoddard from other major stenographers , like the Kilburn Brothers in New Hampshire, were Stoddard's thousands of large prints from about 6 1/2" x 8 1/2" (full plate) to 14 1/2" x 18 1/2" (mammoth) or larger. While Stoddard and his brother-in-law assistant Charles Oblinis climbed mountains in pursuit of views, back at the studio his first wife, Helen Augusta Potter, and other women ran the production end. This involved the laborious task of making contact prints by exposing albumen printing out paper to sunlight which produced the image directly without developer. Albumen paper has a very thin base and is typically gold toned which gives a red-purple hue. Such prints are chemically more stable than typical silver prints, although cardboard mounts and exposure to sunlight cause staining and fading. 

Stoddard appears in several photographs showing his equipment which includes a darkroom tent used in coating wet collodion glass plates and processing on the spot. By the early 1880's dry plate photography was widespread in this country, and it is likely that Stoddard quickly adopted this technical improvement. Since Stoddard had an inventive bent, which earned him two patents, he tended to accept new innovations in photography and printing. He later used nitrate base roll film, and there is reason to believe that after 1889, some prints were enlarged with an electric light enlarger using new silver halide papers. 

While Stoddard made only joking reference to his photographs as High Art, his work today is seriously regarded by such respected art historians as John Wilmerding, who maintains that Stoddard's views of Lake George are "some of the purest luminist photographs we might find." (American Light, 14) Photographic historian Weston Naef, likewise has placed Stoddard within the Luminist category of landscape photographers. 

Unlike the terms Impressionism or Cubism, Luminicsm derives, not from derogatory criticism, but was used by John I.H. Barr to describe a style of landscape painting by second generation painters from about 1850 - 1875. This would include John F. Kennett, Sanford Gifford, and Martin Heade, all of whom painted Lake George well before Stoddard photographed that area. It is likely Stoddard was familiar with the work of some of these artists, and if he is to be placed in the Luminist category, his work is decidedly a late addition. 

Stoddard's photographs of the Lake George Narrows convey the glassy stillness characteristic of the smooth surfaces of Luminist painting. Even when he shows buildings, such as "198. Caldwell, form Fort George Hotel, Lake George," the mirror reflection of the rolling hills unites sky and water, while the architecture appears as unobtrusive hints of civilization. In a similar view, "857. Caldwell...Lake George," the famous Fort William Henrey Hotel appears on the left, bisected from the small shoreline buildings by a tall dark tree. The bold composition departs from the typical framing of foreground foliage and indicates Stoddard could see beyond a visual formula. Originality is also present in the massing of dark and light, nature and architecture, in "8. Fort William Henry Hotel Grounds," where a gazebo protrudes from shrubbery and outbuildings appears on the right between an opening in foreground trees. 

Stoddard surmounted the limitation of a large camera on a tripod by emphasizing foreground space and detail, as in "262. Lake George, view at Hague," which shows an expansive field with prominent daisies in the lower right corner. Carefully positioned in the field are two children in black dress with white round hats which visually rhyme with the flowers and the round clump of trees appearing just off center. A thin horizontal band of still, whitish water separates foreground from mountains and sky that merge in haze and effects of photographic halation. 

In "328. Lake George. Hulett's Landing," the slow exposure renders the foreground water with a sheen from light to medium tones, while on a rocky shore a footbridge with three onlookers leads to a board and batten summer house with Dutch-style gambrel roof, from which rises a Second Empire tower. These multinational stylistic signs within a natural setting are presented – except for the blurred American flag – with a sharp stillness that gives permanence, even dignity, to what is nearly an architectural folly. The house becomes a rock-bound, late variation of Fritz Hugh Lane's paintings of square rigged ships in a harbor.

Stoddard's photograph of "473. Clear Lake from Adirondack Lodge," also fits within a Luminist context, except for the typical commercial captain which denotes architecture at camera position. This image suggests the transcendental idea of God as Nature which Barbara Novak (American Light, 28) feels is best revealed in Luminicsm. Selection of camera angle, choice of time, lighting, color blind emulsion, and still weather emphasize a crystalline synthesis of air, water, earth. The near hills and accompanying reflection  descend toward the center, and a light, triangular sheet of water reflects just the crest of the distant mountain, while foreground trees vertically ascend and descend in counter rhythms. 

The photographer can claim only partial credit for this view, as those who selected the site for the lodge were, in effect, composing nature within the concept of the sublime. All share a common perception with links to the Philosopher's Camp, where Ralph Waldo Emerson, American Pre-Raphaelite painter-writer William James Stallman, and other Boston intellectuals met at Follansbee Pond to experience nature in 1858.

As though echoing the sentiments of that early group of nature worshippers, Stoddard confesses that neither pencil nor pen – camera is not mentioned – can reveal the sublimity of the Adirondack high peaks:

"The rude laugh is hushed, the boisterous shout dies out on reverential lips, the body shrinks down feeling its own littleness, the soul expands, and rising above the earth, claims kinship with its Creator, questioning not his existence." (Adirondacks, 2)

Stoddard must have seen Emerson's essay on Nature. Luminist art emphasizes horizontally, but some of Stoddard's strongest images are vertical formats, as found in earlier Hudson River School Paintings like "Kindred Spirits," 1849, by Asher B. Durand. In Stoddard's "438. Avalanche Lake from the North" the rocky cliff on the left is tightly cropped to suggest vast height, and its sharp edges plunge to meet the silver water, while the opposite gentler slope curves downward and seemingly abuts the steep crag to form a wedge-shaped sky area "burned-in" to show clouds. Silhouetted against the water is a small, carefully posed backpacker whose insignificance before Nature marks the essence of the wilderness experience. 

Stoddard is working amid the Gilded Age, and while many images do evoke a selfless, dematerialized encounter with the sublime, other pictures are more pragmatic interpretations of the material pleasures awaiting the tourist. Architectural photographs like "285. Rogers Rock Hotel," show guests carefully arranged in a setting of geometric pathways, pools, and the requisite second Empire hotel, as a photographer (Charles Oblinis?) uncaps the lens. The rigors of wilderness living have been civilized by a scaled down, middle-class descendent of Versailles. 

In less than a ten minute walk from his Glens Falls studio, Stoddard could experience the spectacular falls of which James Fenimore Cooper wrote in The Last of the Mohicans. Stoddard made stereographs of the falls in his fledgling years that are worth comparing with his more adept camera work in the 1880s at Ausable Chasm. 

The great log jams at the Big Boom in the Hudson River and the sawmills lining the banks of that river at Glens Falls reflect nothing of the Luminist ideal or Transcendental experience, but signify vast energy, speculation dangerous jobs, and the transformation of wilderness into industry. Stoddard did photograph the river transformed into a smooth lake-like surface, but the story of the Hudson –that conduit from forest to mill– is better told with his carefully arranged grouping of lumberjacks chopping trees in the snow. 

Some of Stoddards railway photographs, including work for William West Durant's Adirondack Railway, show atmospheric effects suggestive of Luminism, but magnesium flash pictures of camp life at night are hardly subtle encounters with nature, but rather documents of a robust laissez faire era where fortunes and failures were linked to development of the Adirondacks. Emersonian spirit, however, was not entirely missing for the vast land tracks acquired for pleasure, profit, or less in Durant's case, was a form of preservation.

Philosophic essays, poetry, folk tales, and real ideal paintings all contributed to a mythic appreciation of the Adirondacks, but verplanck Colvin's topographical surveys gave new definition to this region. Stoddard headed the photographic section of the state survey of the Adirondacks, and as more exact information was gathered, the vague and boundless wilderness was shown to be finite and vulnerable. Interest grew for preserving these lands and for restricting lumbering. 

Stoddard made lantern slides of many of his Adirondack photographs and had them tinted by A.G. Marshall of Cazenovia. His slide lecture before the New York Assembly on February 25, 1892, along with subsequent dramatic shows with slides projected on a huge screen, was a factor in getting legislation for the creation of the Adirondack Park, which today covers some six million acres. In his short-lived publication Northern Monthly from 1906-1908, he actively championed preservation and used his photographs along with strong editorials and articles to alert the public to the dangers of improper lumbering practices. 

In the 1890s Stoddard traveled throughout much of the world, but big plate cameras seemed to have given way to more and more to the convenience of the roll film Kodak. The wide-ranging travel photos and his written accounts formed books such as The Cruise of the Friesland, 1895, and also served for the lecture material as well as picture sales. While a broader assessment of his photography, including Alaskan and far western work, is needed, a full account is impossible as large numbers of glass plates were destroyed. 

The many publications, including updating and major revisions in The Adirondack: Illustrated, is a story in itself, which demonstrates the changes from woodcuts and engraving to photochemical reproduction, from quaint personal experience to merely functional information. His hydrographic survey of Lake George from 1906-1908 resulted in a Chart of Lake George which significantly aided navigation near shore and among the many islands. Though in his early sixties, he welcomed the horseless carriage in the Adirondacks and even drove an automobile over what passable roads there were to get material for his Auto-Road Map of 1910. Publishing activities continued until 1915, decline ensued, and he died on May 3, 1917. 

While Stoddard accepted new technology, his vision remained Victorian. He was an example of the multi-faceted, highly productive individual so characteristic of nineteenth century America. This exhibition focuses mostly on work in the eastern Adirondacks in ways that have earned him a place in the visual and Adirondack history. Whether of high peaks, gentle valleys, quiet waters or sublime chasms, his images continue to evoke a sense of awe, and when he included tourists in the photographs, he usually made it clear that they were...guests. 

John Fuller 1987
SUNY College-Oswego