KLASEY: The first “artist photographers” of Kankakee | Local news

When Charles Knowlton opened his studio in 1863 on East Avenue (then Kankakee’s main shopping street), he introduced himself as an “artist photographer and picture frame dealer.”

Knowlton was one of the city’s first photographers, but he was not the first to settle. This honor went to a man named Shepard P. Smith, who introduced himself with the simple title of “Photographer”. His studio was listed in an 1858-1859 business directory on East Avenue, “a door north of the Railroad Drug Store, across from the depot.”

By the mid-1860s, the city’s photographic body had grown to eight members. In addition to Smith and Knowlton, local directories list David S. Thomas, John Shepard, GR Gamble, WH Beebe, Eugene Hotchkiss and Chas. Durheim. Other than their names, little is known about most of them: Smith, for example, is represented in the photographic archives of the Kankakee County Museum by a photograph. There are several photos of GR Gamble in the museum’s collection, including a portrait of a young child, Len Small, who would go on to become Governor of Illinois. The best known of the pioneer photographers were Knowlton and Hotchkiss. The Knowlton workshop survived until 1888; Hotchkiss’ until the late 1890s.

In the 1850s and 1860s, photographers typically produced images called “tintypes,” which consisted of an image on a metal base. This photographic process involved long exposures that required the people being photographed to remain perfectly still for 30 seconds (which explains the stiff or tense appearance of portrait subjects in early photographs). Tintypes were “one of a kind” images – negative film, which allowed multiple copies of a photo to be printed, did not become widely used until the 1870s.

The first official city directory of Kankakee, published in 1876, listed only two photographic companies: Eugene Hotchkiss Photo Gallery at 18 Court Street and Charles Knowlton, artist photographer, at 56 Court Street. Both had established their studios in the mid-1860s. In 1879, Hotchkiss and Knowlton found themselves with a new competitor, CE Voss, who also opened a studio on Court Street.

Hotchkiss would remain in business until the late 1890s, while Voss operated a thriving photographic studio for more than three decades. In 1888 Knowlton retired, selling his studio to one of his employees, a young photographer named Irvin W. Powell. Powell, 23, was from Kankakee, born in Limestone Township in 1865; her parents, Elias and Matilda Powell, were among the pioneers of Kankakee County.

A tireless promoter, Powell would make his company the dominant photographic studio in the region. He has produced portraits of all kinds – infants and children, graduation ceremonies, first communions and confirmations, marriages and family groups – as well as publicity photos and other commercial images. In 1900, he published a 24-page booklet, titled “Souvenir de Kankakee”, which featured nearly 100 photos of factories, churches and schools, downtown buildings and residences.

Over the years, many photographers worked for Studio Powell, including a young man named Walter Schneider, who would go on to become a prominent Kankakee lawyer. Schneider began photographing local scenes as a hobby during his high school years, carrying a wooden camera around town on his bicycle. Her photos caught Powell’s interest and led to a job with the studio. Most of the more familiar surviving photos of downtown Kankakee from the 1890s and early 1900s were captured by Walter Schneider.

In 1910, Powell built a new home for his photography business, a three-story building at 128 S. Dearborn Ave. The facade of the building featured ornamental stone salvaged from Kankakee County’s Second Courthouse, which was demolished in 1909. On the upper lot, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Dearborn Avenue provided ample space to display samples of the studio photography. A wall of north-facing windows on the second floor provided a flood of natural light for Powell’s portrait studio. A large illuminated sign on the roof proclaims the identity of the building.

While Powell was building his new building, a new (and different) competitor moved in just half a block away. Ms. Emma Leach, Kankakee’s first female photographer, opened her studio on Court Street, between Dearborn and Indiana Avenues, in 1909. Emma Leach retired in 1918, handing the business over to her son-in-law, Elmer Kirkman. He operated the Leach Studio until 1939.

In 1918, the same year Emma Leach retired, Irvin Powell put an end to his photographic career of more than 30 years. He retired and passed the business over to his son, Lyman, who ran Studio Powell until it closed in the 1950s.

On the morning of June 17, 1935, the pioneering era of photography in Kankakee came to an end when IW Powell passed away at the age of 69 in his apartment on the second floor of the Powell Studio building.

Michael E. Marquez