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Charles R. Savage

Charles R. Savage was born in Southampton, England in 1832. Savage established himself as an “ambrotypist“ in New York, a practitioner of a newer and more rewarding (though more cumbersome) photographic means than either daguerreotyping or calotyping, He died in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1909.

Savage had a wagon custom built and outfitted as a portable photographic lab. He travelled the Mormon Pioneer Trail in order to photo-document the route. Savage joined a Mormon train which left Nebraska City for Salt Lake to start his trek.

Given a permanent rail pass in May of 1869, the photographer traveled and took pictures of the Union Pacific for more than forty years, recording a large segment of the West in the process. Yet, Charles Savage remains best known today for the work he did in a three-day period in 1869--the picturing and processing of views of the “joining of the rails“ created between May 10 and 12 of that year. The resulting photographs became well known nationally.

Biography adapted from Artists of Utah.

The second photographer (the first being Marsena Cannon) to settle for a long duration in Utah was George Ottinger's partner-to-be, Charles Roscoe Savage (1832-1909). Born in Southampton, England, Savage heard the Mormon message and converted rapidly to the new faith in his mid-teen years. Eventually serving in the L.D.S. Swiss mission from 1852 to 1855, the young man then bided his time until passage for America became possible in the year following his mission in that German-speaking region. Working for an additional two years as an interpreter for other Mormon immigrants arriving at Castle Gardens, New York, in 1857-58, Savage became interested in picture-taking and, upon conclusion of his interpretive work, started a new career as a photographer in New York City.

Savage established himself as an “ambrotypist“ in New York, a practitioner of a newer and more rewarding (though more cumbersome) photographic means than either daguerreotyping or calotyping, both of which were on the decline in usage by the time the young convert had decided to pursue a living in that field. The Savage process was actually a variant on the “wet collodian technique“ invented in England in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer. In this instance, glass sheets freshly coated with light-sensitive “collodian“ were exposed and developed wet to create finely detailed and highly delicate negatives. These glass negatives, which carried a high light-revealing whitish deposit, could then be black-backed“ to appear positive, and “direct positive“ was the “ambrotype“ (as opposed to similar “japanned“ black of brown iron-sheet “ferrotype“ or “tintype“ positives that had developed at about the same time).

Because such collodian-process pictures could only be developed while still wet, photographers using such means were forced to have “dark rooms“ with them wherever they went. The young Charles Savage used a “curtain made from an old grey blanket and a tea chest“ for his purpose in New York, and then a year later (1859), he probably worked with a more involved wagon field-lab set-up upon arrival in Florence, Nebraska, on the way west. Traveling to Salt Lake City in 1860, Savage at first set up a partnership with the old dauererotypist Marsena Cannon, but around 1863, the more permanent association with the photo-tinter/painter George Ottinger was established, as Ottinger became president and Savage became treasurer of the Deseret Academy of Arts.

Photographic technology improved during the 1860s, and various innovations, especially regarding the collodian process, began to change the character of frontier camera work. For instance, moving back to Salt Lake City after only a relatively short time spent in business in Park City, Savage and Ottinger were introduced during the same general period to the so-called “stereograph.“ Invented by Sir David Brewster and popularized in this country by the physician and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1863 and probably introduced in Salt Lake City by returning missionary Thomas B. Stenhouse (who had actually been responsible for Savage's original conversion in England back in 1848), stereographs were “twin pictures“ of the same scene that appeared in three dimensions when looked at through a “stereoscope“ or viewer designed by Holmes for the purpose. Stereoscopic technique quickly improved within the decade, and soon, “instantaneous photographs“ could be taken; these inexpensive on-location sunlight views became a particular specialty of Charles Savage.

In the mid-1860s, C.R. Savage made the decision to visit the East Coast for the purpose of acquiring much-needed new photographic equipment and other supplies. In 1866, he left Utah for California, and in a short time, a long sea voyage took him from there back to New York. Spending little time in New York City, Savage then went on to Philadelphia with the intent of ordering a wagon to be “made suitable for the purpose. . . [of] taking a series of views of the overland routes“ he proposed for his return trip to Utah. Having “the wagon shipped by rail and steamboat to Nebraska City“ upon its completion, Savage, as he later described in correspondence to the eastern publication Philadelphia Photographer, proceeded to fit out this vehicle as a portable photographic lab.

Detailing the wagon, he wrote: “With the exception of being a little too heavy, it answers pretty well. It is about nine feet long and six feet high in the dark room, leaving three feet of space in the front for carrying a seat and provisions. The sides are fitted with grooved drawers for the different sized negatives, and proper receptacles for the different cameras, chemicals, etc., forming a very complete outdoor dark room. . . . With two span of mules and provisions for two months, I joined a Mormon train which left Nebraska City for Salt Lake about the 8th of July. As the Mormon trains are well-armed and completely organized, I found it a great advantage, rather than attempt the trip alone, which by the way, our kind Uncle [Sam] will not allow anyone to do beyond Fort Kearney.“

Savage then explained the difficulties of such a project in the following manner. “The road from Nebraska City to Fort Kearney presents but few objects of special interest to the photographer. I secured negatives of one or two overland stations, and a few of rural scenes for any particular features different from the same genre of subjects elsewhere. When we reached Fort Kearney it was blowing a gale, but, in spite of that, I made desperate efforts to take the Fort, with indifferent success.

"From Fort Kearney on to the crossing of the South Platte, near the present terminus of the U.P.R.R. [Union Pacific Rail Road], the road follows the Platte Valley, and a more uninteresting road can hardly be found. . . . Added to this, you are never free from Indian attacks, for, at the time of passing along that route, the few settlers on the mail road were almost scared out of their wits from the rumors of Indian troubles.

“Now to photograph successfully on the plains, you must be perfectly safe from Indians, as on two or three occasions in our efforts to secure some views, we found ourselves alone several miles from the train, and ran one or two risks of being gobbled up. . . . The sad fate of your former correspondent, Mr. Cloves, shows how uncertain is life in such a place, and the wisdom of keeping a good lookout . . . a strong party well armed with Henry rifles, and good animals.“

Then Charles Savage and his friend Alfred Lambourne both recorded (via lens and pencil respectively) the western route to the Mormon “Zion“ in 1886 and worked together four years later on a similar project. Going with a Brigham Young expedition to Zion Canyon in the spring of 1870, Lambourne did history's first known sketches of that natural wonder, while Savage photographed many of the same subjects. Writing in his journal, Savage commented: “Zion is a very small settlement. This canyon may justly be called Yosemite of Utah as it surpasses in grandeur and sublimity of rock grandeur any place I ever saw--huge wall rocks rising from 1,000 to 3,000 feet perpendicular from the valley--they assume all kinds of shapes.“

The photographer was one of the busiest men in the territory, and Savage's journal is full of such entries. During a period between March and July of the previous year, for instance, a sampling of terse notations from it reads:

“March 11, 1869. Took portrait of President Young this day 4 by 4 and 4 and 10 sizes.

“April 12, 1869. Received letter from Nelson and Sons granting exclusive agency west of Missouri River for the large view of the city and the smaller book.

“April 23, 1869. Took two stereoscopes from top of Kimball and Laurence's building. Tried sugar development, work well--although a kind of scum floated on top during development.

“May 4, 1869. Col. Seymour wishes me to photograph the laying of the Last Rail, shall go.

“May 10, 1869. Today the ceremony of uniting the ends of the tracks took place. I worked . . . all day and secured some nice views of the scenes connected with the laying of the last rail. Everything passed off lively and the weather was delightful. Saw but little of the actual driving of the gold spike--and laying of the laurel tie--as I was very busy.

“May 12, 1869. Very busy in getting out pictures. Sent Harper Bros. copies of each kind.

“May 13, 1869. Delivered to Mr. Frost an assortment of views of Montana and Idaho.

“May 14, 1869. Delivered two chromes to B. Hampton.

“May 18, 1869. My promontory views took first rate. Our sales for views have amounted to $125 in three days.

“May 20, 1869. Received pass from U.P.R.R.

“May 30, 1869. Started this morning for the Devil's Gate where I succeeded in taking some very fine negatives. Spent the day in hard work. Have taken 13 stereoscopic and two 4 by 4 negatives in the two days.

“July 10, 1869. Took pictures around Fort Bridger.

“July 15, 1869 (Uinta Mts.) What was my dismay to find my silver bath upset and contents spilled by the carelessness of a soldier thus terminating my photographic efforts in this region.“

More outspoken in other writings, Savage also edited and printed a newsy little sheet called the The Busy Bee that was described in the The Deseret News as follows: “The Busy Bee is the title of a little journal dedicated to the workers in the human hive of Deseret and elsewhere, and will be published gratuitously and occasionally by Charles R. Savage. If there is a busier bee than Charles we would like to see him, though we would not like to feel the sting of Savage Chawl's.“

Given a permanent rail pass in May of 1869, the photographer traveled and took pictures of the Union Pacific for more than forty years, recording a large segment of the West in the process. Yet, Charles Savage remains best known today for the work he did in a three-day period in 1869--the picturing and processing of views of the “joining of the rails“ created between May 10 and 12 of that year. The resulting photographs became well known nationally.

An active and successful decade followed the Promontory Views, and in 1879, Savage was set to depart for Europe with George Ottinger on a long-anticipated gallery and photographic tour. Both men had lectured for profit through the period (Ottinger on Pre-Columbian America and Savage on the scenic beauty of the West); four years earlier Savage had also come up with the idea of an annual “Old Folks Day“ in Utah. A summer excursion was organized to Salt Lake-area senior citizens on that day; of course, Charles Savage himself was more than happy to aid anyone interested in photographic remembrance of this fondly recalled and and increasingly popular event. Ottinger and Savage returned in the 1880s to resume what now seemed more and more promising careers: Ottinger embarked upon his university experience, while Savage's business found ever-increasing financial boosts partly on the basis of the continual technical advancements made in his field during the general time.

Both men lived past 1900: the Busy Bee photographer died at the age of seventy-seven after almost a decade of the new century had elapsed, while the old painter hung on until 1917. And though both had suffered hardship in the difficult “Out West“ time that their early conversions to the Mormon religion had dictated, perhaps Savage's losses were the greater. One of the most dedicated Rocky Mountain photographers, C.R. had amassed what must have been an unrivaled visual record of the Utah pioneer experience by the end of the 1860s. He lost the vast majority of such a record in 1883 through a disastrous fire that occurred in his studio building; the full accomplishment of that remarkable enterprising picture-maker could never be replaced if he lived to be a thousand years old, and he knew it. Saddened by the tragedy, he continued to work on for another two decades and more. The unique burden that Savage carried was perhaps lightened from time to time by the presence of a large family (four wives and thirteen children) and by what was a basically positive view toward life.

Biography courtesy Artists of Utah.

Book

Olpin, Robert S., William C. Seifrit, and Vern G. Swanson. Artists of Utah. Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs Smith Publisher, 1999.

 Last Modified 4/23/14