A Shades Reader
"Photos—the shards of all our families past
—have been a fascinating tool to unearth new layers and stories."
As family genealogists are wont to do, a few months ago, I met with my cousin to borrow some wonderful family heirloom documents for scanning. I noticed some older portrait photos in a collage frame on her bookcase and asked “who’s that?” She responded that they were our great grandparents, so needless to say I borrowed those as well.
The photos were of my maternal grandmother’s parents, Mary “Mamie” Gertrude Maines and John S. Heinz who married April 30, 1894. 1 John looks quite neat and trim with a surprising resemblance to my brother, but his story, though interesting, is not the story to be told here. The photo of Mary shows an innocent, wistful and dainty young woman who as life took its course had a connection to two famous men.
Once at home, I removed the photos from the frame to discover they were cabinet cards with the photographer’s name noted on front and the studio address on the verso. Ah, a clue to determine the age of the photo! I thought how would the footnoteMaven handle this search? I pictured her reaching for a source in her ample photographic library. Alas, I don’t have that, so I turned to the universal library—Google.
I entered the photographer’s name, Pirie MacDonald, and quickly established a time frame, but got a surprise in the bargain. Search results told me he had a studio in Albany, NY from about 1890 to 1900. 2 Why did he pick Albany? According to the federal census, Albany ranked in the top 50 US cities by population from 1790 right up to 1910. 3
Pirie MacDonald’s story started in Chicago where he was born Jan 27, 1867 just nine days after his Scottish mother arrived in the US. 4 Sources list his given name as Ian Pirie, but I came to question that since the 1870 census clearly shows him at the age of 3 listed as Jno for Jonathan or John. 5 Years later, in some directories, he is listed as J. P. in his ads. 6 Formal education ended for him at the age of 11. He was self-educated through “constant reading and studying, plus a passion for travel”.
By 1880, the family had moved to Troy, NY where he was a handy boy for an iron foundry. 7 My guess is that it was the Burden Iron Works whose owner himself was a Scottish émigré. The company’s machine to mass produce horseshoes was a technological wonder of it’s time. During the Civil War, most of the Union’s horseshoes were purchased from Burden Iron Works. 8 This short lesson in hard work probably affected his later choices. By 1883, he was a photographic apprentice in Hudson, NY. After a seven year apprenticeship and with savings of $75, he ventured out to set up his own studio in 1889, in Albany, NY. 9
Here’s his ad as listed in the 1890 Albany directory. 10 (The plural MacDonald refers to a partner, most likely his brother, George, who had a studio in Albany starting in 1888.)
Pirie honed his craft there. Years later, he related that he felt the event that was the stimulus for him setting out in his own creative direction was when the wife of a farmer returned to the shop unhappy with proofs of pictures of her husband his studio had done. Her explanation for her displeasure was “He doesn’t look out of the pictures the way he looks at me.” Pirie said that was something he never forgot and stated “It’s not an easy thing to explain, but I believe to make a true portrait you must try to analyze and understand your subject’s character, and deliberately aim to reflect the character in the picture.” 11
He went on to develop lighting techniques that brought a sense of drama to his head and shoulder portraits shot in soft focus. “Perhaps MacDonald's greatest genius was in his use of lighting to create a certain glisten and gleam that made his portraits so notably rich.” His portraits were centered on the face, showed little of the body, and made no use of backdrops, furniture, or studio props; only on rare occasions were some occupational prop included. 12 In a matter of a few years, he “quickly won acclaim for his camera studies of women.” 13 While still in Albany, his fame grew such that his work won awards at exhibits in New York, the Midwest, as well as Paris. 14 Even so, he found time to contribute to the Albany community, such as being a judge for an 1895 high school drawing competition. 15 Later, he would be a prestigious judge at many important photographic competitions.
As his reputation grew, he continued to garner awards so that by 1895 his ad looked like this. 16
Alas, his talents outgrew his adopted city. In an April 1900 photography periodical, his business card was shown announcing a New York City studio he had established. 17 By mid November of that year, the Albany paper had a notice that Pirie would now be devoting his time to this New York City location. The Albany studio would close December 1. 18 In the spring of 1901, another notice appeared in the Albany paper to announce that all negatives from the Albany studio would be turned over to the Gustave Lorey studio. The notice goes on to recommend Mr. Lorey as “an accomplished artist” who “has an unquestionable reputation for integrity, and Mr. MacDonald bespeaks for him the favor of his former clients.” 19 Coincidently, that studio was where my own first baby pictures were taken. Perhaps the negative of my great grandmother’s portrait was still sitting on a dusty shelf somewhere in a back room as I posed.
Here is the business card that appeared in the aforementioned 1900 periodical:
Take note that he has now chosen to specialize only in creating portraits of men. So the already precious photo of my great grandmother is now even more dear due to the scarcity of Pirie MacDonald female photos.
In fact, he held true to his men only specialty even so far as never photographing his own wife and daughter. 20 How did he come to the decision of only working with men? By the time he reached New York City, his reputation was firmly established. He disdained glamorizing a subject; instead his desire was to do honest work that reflected the true essence of the subject. From his experience, he understood the inherent difficult issues in working with women. 21 “He refused to permit women in his studio, declaring they refused to sacrifice their vanity for a true portrait.” 22 A lovely tongue in cheek article in The Philistine, a periodical of the time, lays out that instead his change of heart was due to a colorful encounter with a female subject. This excerpt shows the flavor of the article: “He calls himself a Photographic Artist—and he is. He has more medals, and gets higher prices than any photographer in America. His prices are as high as a church steeple. Pirie is the only man I ever knew, or heard of, who made a fortune taking photographs. He has his limit in every savings bank in Albany, owns a block of flats, and sports an automobile in the park with a bull-dog sitting beside him.” 23
Once established in New York City, he only photographed men of prominence from the arts, industry, and government. Over the span of his career, right up to days before his death in 1942, he created unique portraits of over 70,000 subjects. 24 His client list was composed of all the names in the headlines including the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Arthur Conan Doyle, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Henry Ford, Thomas Nast, and politicians and artists galore. Only twice did he leave the New York area to do photos. On those occasions, he traveled to Czechoslovakia to photograph President Jan Masaryk and to Denmark to photograph King Christian X. 25
One of his personal favorites was his portrait of Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. That same portrait was Teddy’s wife’s favorite as well. During Teddy’s reign as governor of New York in 1899-1900, Pirie photographed Teddy’s children and their pets in Albany as well as at their Oyster Bay estate. Once Teddy reached the White House, he extended an invitation to Pirie to come there to do his portrait. Pirie declined and the President had to come to him. 26 Now that’s power and prestige!
Pirie MacDonald was acclaimed by his peers. By the end of his career, he had earned over 30 awards including decoration by France as a l’Officier de l’Academie and as an honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. 27
He worked tirelessly to advance the status of his art. At a convention in 1897, he asserted his desire for originality in the field. “Why should we copy people who push brushes?” He scoffed at attempts by photography to copy old paintings without an understanding of what made up their beauty. 28 Before a Congressional committee, he argued on behalf of all photographers in favor of amendments to copyright laws.29 In 1912, he was involved in working on a topic still on our minds today—preservation. Under a New York Times headline of “Want Photographs to Last Forever”, it’s noted that he joined in the efforts of the Modern Records Association of the National Arts Club which “was gathering records to place in some imperishable structure yet to be built”. Pirie contributed a picture on glass which he conjectured would last a considerable time; while Thomas Edison contributed disc records which were “said to be indestructible.” 30
His enthusiasm extended beyond his profession. “He served as an active officer in a number of non-photographic organizations as well, including the Rotary Club of New York, the Boy Scouts of America, and the Adirondack Mountain Club (an area of our state that was dear to Teddy Roosevelt as well). In addition, he was the author and publisher of a drill manual for the Boy Scouts.”31
As for his personal life, Pirie had a 50 year plus marriage with Emelie Van Deursen of Hudson, NY whom he met during his apprenticeship there. They had one daughter who gave them one grandson, Pirie MacDonald Tutchings. His grandson, working under the name Pirie MacDonald, had a career in New York as a producer, director, and actor. He worked on Broadway, in regional theater, and had parts in several movies amongst which are “Network” and “Wall Street.” Out of curiosity, I wanted to find a picture of him, but was unable to. Perhaps, that is fitting since his grandfather would not photograph actors nor Eastern ethnicities since he felt “there wasn’t enough of them in their faces” to create the character studies he preferred.32
And as the noted photographer rose to fame, what became of Mary Maines Heinz? She became a mother of a brood of eight. Her eldest daughter, Gertrude Mary Heinz, was my grandmother who married Henry Donald McMahon. This marriage brought a tie to another of Pirie MacDonald’s subjects. As a young boy, Henry’s family lived in the shadow of the Governor’s Mansion in Albany. So close that if he sat on his stoop, he could look up the block towards the driveway of the Mansion to see then Governor Teddy Roosevelt and family coming and going. So close that one of those pet dogs of the Roosevelt family captured in Pirie MacDonald photos was able to wander down the street to pay a visit to Henry’s mother’s garden and tear it up. I can just picture his Irish born mother, Margaret O’Donnell McMahon, marching up the street to the Mansion door with apron strings flying and children in tow to demand restitution. In fact, she did receive it because Teddy’s gardener was sent to do the repairs. Perhaps, somewhere there still exists a Roosevelt family photo of the culprit pet that had a brush with my family.
1. Heinz, John S., Family Bible Records 1894-1984. The Holy Bible. Baltimore:John Murphy Co., 1899. Privately held by Donna McClure, Guilderland, NY
2. Jenny Gotwals, “Guide to the Pirie MacDonald Portrait Photograph Collection”, finding aid, New York Historical Society, http://dlib.nyu.edu/eadapp/transform?source=nyhs/pirie.xml&style=nyhs/nyhs.xsl&part=body
3. “Table 1. Rank by Population of the 100 Largest Urban Places, Listed Alphabetically by State: 1790-1990”, Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census: http://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0027/tab01.txt
4. “Guide to the Pirie MacDonald Portrait Photograph Collection”
5. 1870 U.S. census, Cook County, Illinois population schedule, Ward 5 Chicago, p.249 (penned), p. 279 (stamped), dwelling 1703, family 1935. Jno. P. MacDonald: digital images, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com); from National Archives microfilm publication M593, roll 200.
6. Albany Directory 1890, (Albany, NY: Sampson, Murdock & Co. 1890), p. 194
7. “Good Portraits Must Be Planned,” Popular Science v.139, no. 6 (December 1941), p. 206-209, digital image, http://books.google.com
9. “Guide to the Pirie MacDonald Portrait Photograph Collection”
10. Albany Directory 1890, (Albany, NY: Sampson, Murdock & Co. 1890), p. 194
11. “Good Portraits Must Be Planned,” Popular Science
12. “Guide to the Pirie MacDonald Portrait Photograph Collection”
13. “Ian Pirie MacDonald Dies; World Noted Photographer,” The Binghamton Press (Binghamton, NY), 23 April 1942, p. 10, col. 6, digital images, http://www.fultonhistory.com
14. “Guide to the Pirie MacDonald Portrait Photograph Collection”
15. “Report on the Committee of Drawing,” Proceedings of the Board of Public Instruction of the City of Albany, v. XV, p. 186, digital images, http://books.google.com
16. Albany Directory 1895, (Albany, NY: Sampson, Murdock & Co. 1890), p. 777
17. “Notes,” The Photo-Miniature, v. II, no. 13 (April 1900), pg 421, http://books.google.com
18. “Reading Notices,” Albany Evening Journal (Albany, NY), 14 November 1900, p. unknown: digital images. http://www.fultonhistory.com
19. “Pirie MacDonald’s Successor,” Albany Evening Journal (Albany, NY), 16 May 1901, p. 10, col. 2: digital images. http://www.fultonhistory.com
20. “Good Portraits Must Be Planned,” Popular Science
21. “Good Portraits Must Be Planned,” Popular Science
22. “Ian Pirie MacDonald Dies; World Noted Photographer,” The Binghamton Press
23. “Why He Cut the Women Out,” The Philistine (E. Aurora, NY), January 1901, digital images, Internet Archive, http://www.archive.org/stream/whyhecutwomenout00hubbiala
24. “Pirie M’Donald Dead at Age of 75,” New York Times (New York), 23 April, p.23; digital images, ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times 1851-2005 (access through participating libraries).
25. “Pirie M’Donald Dead at Age of 75,” New York Times
26. “Pirie M’Donald Dead at Age of 75,” New York Times
27 “Pirie M’Donald Dead at Age of 75,” New York Times
28. “The New England Club’s First Convention”, The Photographic Times, v. XXIX, (1897), p. 482, http://books.google.com
29. U.S. Congress, Arguments Before the Committee on Patents of the House of Representatives (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1906), p. 73 & 147; digital images, (http://books.google.com.)
30. “Want Photographs to Last Forever,” New York Times (New York), 13 November, 1912, p.22; digital images, ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times 1851-2005 (access through participating libraries).
31. “Guide to the Pirie MacDonald Portrait Photograph Collection”
32. “Speaking of Pictures Can you identify Pirie famous portraits?” Life, 11 January 1942, p. 12-13, microfilm, ULIB MIC Per AP 101 L62X v.14, 1943, reel 13