By: David Haynes

Type: General Entry

Published: January 1, 1996

Updated: January 7, 2021

On April 17, 1839, almost three years after the Texas victory at the battle of San Jacinto, the Telegraph and Texas Register reprinted an article that described (with considerable inaccuracy) the processes then being perfected to produce a permanent image entirely through the action of light and chemistry by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre in France (on a silver-plated copper sheet) and William Henry Fox Talbot in England (on paper). By 1841 or 1842 photographers in the northeastern United States were producing daguerreotype portraits, but the process apparently did not arrive in Texas until December 1843, when a Mrs. Davis advertised her photographic services in the Houston newspapers. Although she might have remained for "two or three weeks" and was probably the first person to produce a photograph in Texas, none of her work is known to exist. Dozens of transient daguerreotypists followed Mrs. Davis to Texas. They adopted the same procedure that she had used by advertising in the local newspapers and inviting patrons to come by their temporary studios to have their portraits made. B. F. Neal visited Galveston in mid-1844, and Joseph R. Palmer, a New Orleans daguerreotypist, worked in Galveston and Corpus Christi in 1846, while following Gen. Zachary Taylor's army into Mexico. In 1847 C. Asberry appeared in Clarksville, Adolphus Behn in La Grange (Fayette County), and James H. and J. Selkirk in Matagorda. George A. Davis and E. P. Whitfield advertised in Austin in January 1848; Whitfield subsequently sold his equipment to the proprietor of the hotel where he was staying, Alfred Smith, and Smith presumably added photography to his hotel business. A Dr. Whitfield is the first photographer recorded in San Antonio (1849). Perhaps some of the work of these photographers remains, but scholars have not been able to associate them with a single image taken in Texas before 1850.

The earliest extant daguerreotype that was definitely made in the state is an image of the Alamo taken in 1849 that is now in the collection of the Barker Texas History Center at the University of Texas at Austin. At least two early photographers remained in the same locality for an extended period of time. The firm of James H. and J. Selkirk continued in Matagorda until the Civil War, and John H. Stephen Stanley, an immigrant from England born about 1800, opened a gallery in Houston in 1850 or 1851 and remained there until at least 1870. Photographers often had to pursue other occupations to make a living. James Selkirk, for example, is listed in the 1850 census as a pilot; both Neal and Palmer were active in the newspaper business.

Although all early photographers in Texas used the daguerreotype process, there were some who experimented with other methods. Insofar as is known, none used Fox Talbot's calotype process, which produces a negative that can be used to make positive prints, because they would have had to acquire a license. J. H. S. Stanley of Houston apparently experimented with Frederick Scott Archer's wet collodion negative-positive process. In 1851 and 1852 he advertised in the Houston papers that he had succeeded in making photographs on glass and that he would soon offer them to the public. Daguerreotypes were still used, especially for portraits, during the Civil War, after variations of the wet collodion process had produced the ambrotype (a negative on glass, backed by a black surface) and the tintype (with the photographic emulsion on a black-lacquered iron plate). The light and unbreakable tintype became popular during the Civil War because the images could be inexpensively produced and sent intact to loved ones. Texas photographers produced tintypes for decades. It is impossible to determine when the process was abandoned in the state, but examples produced in the 1890s are common. Despite the fact that almost every Texas photographer could make glass negatives and paper prints after about 1857, actual images of these types are rare in Texas until about 1866. A series of views of San Antonio, probably taken by William DeRyee in 1859 and 1860, is extant, and comparable images may have been made in other important Texas towns before the war. DeRyee also published a set of photographic prints of the members of the Eighth Texas Legislature in 1860.

The discovery that collodion could be used to hold photographic salts to glass for the production of negatives was paralleled by the discovery that egg albumen could be used for the same purpose on paper. These two innovations dominated all of photography from the end of the Civil War until practically the end of the nineteenth century. The initial paper prints to prove popular in Texas were called cartes de visite, first popularized by André Disdéri of Paris in 1859. The name refers to the size of the cardboard upon which the albumen print was mounted-the size of a visiting card, approximately 2½ X 4 inches. The carte remained the most popular format until about 1870. Many were made after that date, but by then a new size-the cabinet-had taken the lead in fashionable galleries. The cabinet mount measures about 4½ X 6½ inches; it remained the most popular photographic size until the end of the century. Many Texas photographers also produced stereographic cards, usually of local buildings or scenes. These cards contain two images of the same scene which, when viewed through a stereoscope, appear to converge into a single, three-dimensional picture.

After the Civil War many Texas cities and towns could support permanent photographers. During the last three decades of the century, such practitioners as Harvey R. Marks in Austin, James R. Davis in Dallas, Frederick W. Bartlett in Galveston, Charles J. Wright in Houston, Henry A. Doerr in San Antonio, and William D. Jackson in Waco each worked for at least fifteen years. Operators in many small towns also stayed put for long careers in one location. Examples run the alphabet from James A. Arvin in Mexia to Reiner J. Zimmermann in Fayette County. There were still some situations, however, where a travelling photographer could make a living. In the lightly settled ranch country of the Edwards Plateau, McArthur C. Ragsdale traveled from town to town during the 1870s and 1880s. Many other photographers worked circuits in South and West Texas. Itinerants occasionally set up in cities where, by offering lower prices, they could compete with permanent photographers for short periods. During the nineteenth century a few Texas photographers made notable contributions to the progress of the art. Texans corresponded with the national photographic press and were members of national photographic societies. Such communication was behind the facts that Stanley was experimenting with the wet collodion process the year it was invented, and that William DeRyee produced a book illustrated with tipped-in photographic prints in 1860. C. Conrad Stremme made photographic copies of county maps in the General Land Office in the early 1860s, surely one of the earliest attempts by a government to use technology to make inexpensive copies of documents available to the public.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century the technical basis for modern black-and-white photography was established. The wet collodion negative was replaced by the gelatin dry plate, which evolved into the cellulose cut and roll films of today, and albumenized printing paper gave way to papers coated with a gelatin-based emulsion. Before these technical advancements individual photographers had to make or sensitize their own negatives and paper, but the modern materials could be mass-produced in factories. These developments, particularly the popularizing of roll film cameras by Eastman Kodak, not only reduced the work required of the professional, but also made photography easily and cheaply available to anyone who wished to try it. Amateur photography soon became the most significant segment of the photo-supply business. The most important activity for most photographers has always been making studio portraits. During the nineteenth century many photographers advertised making and selling both urban and scenic views and stereographs, but almost all professional photographers made the vast majority of their income from portraits. With the coming of the Kodak era, however, more and more people took their own portraits for all but the most formal occasions. As the twentieth century progressed, the majority of photographers increasingly went into commercial work making images for business uses-advertising, promotion, legal proceedings, and so forth. Even so, the most widely recognized professional photographer in the state today, Paul L. Gittings, is known almost entirely for his portrait work. Collections of a few local photographers working before World War II have been preserved in libraries and museums. Examples include Harry F. Annas (Lockhart), Otis A. Aultman (El Paso), Fred Gildersleeve (Waco), Joe Litterst (Houston), Ray Rector (Stamford), and John Paul Trlica (Granger). The Texas Professional Photographers Association was organized in 1898 to encourage cooperation among its members and to provide a means to speak out on issues involving their business. The TPPA, allied with the national association, provides strong support for professional commercial photographers. Though the overwhelming majority of professional photographers in Texas are White males, many women and members of ethnic minorities have made significant contributions to the progress of photography in the state. In addition to the earliest documented Texas daguerreotypist, Mrs. Davis, information is available about more than 100 woman photographers working in the state before 1900. Minority men and women have always been active in photography, particularly in large minority communities in urban areas.

Another important outlet for photographic work since World War I has been the increasing number of publications that use photographs to illustrate stories and provide editorial content. Freelancers working in Texas have contributed many important images to both local and national periodicals. In the 1920s Jack Specht was hired as a staff photographer by the San Antonio Light, and soon most other newspapers hired photographers. By the end of 1995 photographers working for Texas newspapers had won more Pulitzer Prizes than those from any other state. William Snyder and Larry C. Price both won two Pulitzers at the Dallas Times Herald, one each for spot news and one each for feature photography. In 1995 University of Texas graduate Jean-Marc Bouju, working for the Associated Press, received a Pulitzer for feature photography. Students of photojournalism teachers such as J. B. Colson at the University of Texas and George Krause at the University of Houston have made significant contributions to publications across the nation. Such statewide magazines as Texas Monthly provide local photographers with important outlets for their work.

Although from the beginning of photography its practitioners have advertised their work as artistic, in fact the vast majority of photographers have used their skill to make a living, with little concern for commenting on the universal human condition. The early twentieth century provides a few examples of people in Texas who used photography as a medium of expression rather than as a commercial enterprise. Frank Reaugh and Erwin E. Smith made photographs of Texas cattle operations and other Western subjects as artistic expressions or as a basis for paintings. Between the two world wars Wilfred D. Smithers documented many aspects of West Texas life. Though many of his images were sold to newspapers, he used some of his most striking negatives to make film positives for lampshades after World War II. Many of the photographers working for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression made photographs detailing rural life in Texas. Eugene O. Goldbeck, a San Antonio photographer who specialized in making panoramic photographs of very large groups, often arranged the subjects to form a living symbol of the organization. In the 1940s and 1950s Carlotta Corpron, an art teacher at Texas Woman's University in Denton, produced a remarkable series of abstract photographs while investigating the nature of light. The 1960s brought a new opportunity for Texas artists to express themselves through photography. Beginning at the University of Texas in Austin with Russell Lee, several universities around the state added photography to their art curricula and gave established photographic artists a forum to teach and influence talented students. Many of these students, and others encouraged by the new climate in the state for photographic expression, have produced notable images that have been exhibited and published nationwide. The most prolific of this new generation of photographers are Jim Bones and Keith Carter. Several of the teachers, notably Geoff Winningham (at Rice) and Garry Winogrand (at UT Austin), have published collections of Texas photographs.

While most photographic artists working in Texas have had to rely on informal and short-lived spaces to exhibit their work, a few commercial galleries have supported photographic expression on a larger scale. Two examples are AfterImage in Dallas and Benteler-Morgan in Houston. Beginning in the late 1970s groups of photographers themselves organized "artists' spaces" in the cities to show the work of contemporary photo artists. Important spaces that have followed the pioneering Allen Street in Dallas include the Houston Center for Photography and the Texas Photographic Society and Women and Their Work, both in Austin. In addition to providing gallery space, some of these groups produce newsletters and other publications. A few noncollecting museums such as the Galveston Art Center and the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston exhibit the work of Texas photographers. A unique opportunity for photographic artists has been provided every two years since 1988 by the FotoFest in Houston, a combination of gallery shows, lectures, workshops, and master classes. Moreover, libraries and museums all across the state hold vast numbers of photographic negatives and prints. Most of these collections concentrate on local or regional material. Collections of statewide interest are maintained by the Amon Carter Museum, the Center for American History, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the Dallas Historical Society, the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures, the San Jacinto Museum, and the Texas State Archives. Major collections of artistic photography (not necessarily from Texas) include the Amon Carter Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Humanities Research Center. Purchases by these institutions have had a very positive affect on the market for Texas photographers, and scholars working with museum collections have made many important contributions to our understanding of the history of photography and its influence on our society and culture.

Though one might assume that the proliferation of videotape and computer-imaging technology (both amateur and professional) would lessen the importance of photography in the years to come, no such prediction can be confidently made. The 1990 census reported the largest number of photographers per capita in the state's history, and the art-photography movement is vital and growing. These facts argue that photography will continue to be an important cultural tool for the foreseeable future.

Ava Crofford, The Diamond Years of Texas Photography (Austin, 1975). David Haynes, Catching Shadows: A Directory of 19th-Century Texas Photographers (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1993). William A. Owens (essay) and Richard Pearce-Moses (picture research and legends), Historic Texas: A Photographic Portrait, ed. Martha A. Sandweiss, Roy Flukinger, and Anne Tucker (Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1986). Richard Pearce-Moses, Photographic Collections in Texas: A Union Guide (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1987). Robert Reid, Picturing Texas: The FSA-OWI Photographers in the Lone Star State, 1935–1943 (Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1994).

  • Visual Arts
  • Genres and Media

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

David Haynes, “Photography,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 25, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1996
January 7, 2021