William Wallace Tooker
Northwest Boulder view with figure (Tooker at Split Rock) circa 1898
William Wallace Tooker monumentally stands alone in terms on substantial contributions of the photographic record as the photographer of importance and stature of the eastern tip of Long Island, New York (the"South Fork") from 1880-1900. A number of his captivating images deserve equal recognition along with other early American photography pioneers.
William Wallace Tooker (1847-1917) was a visionary who responded to his intellectual curiosity to the world around him. Like many intellectuals, scientists and artists of the time he found the camera an interesting phenomena and as an observer of his environment found it a effective tool to document what he thought was historically significant. While many turn of the century photographers have admirably received acclaimed ackowledgement for their photographic work little is known about Tooker's images and their nationally historical significance. The windmills, the lighthouses, shipwrecks, beached whales, pre-American Revolution houses of the idyllic pastoral landscape of the new world are of equal value in terms of substantial contributions by early American photographers. This website presents a few of those images.
A Pleasure To the Eye
The following passage from an article Tooker wrote for a New York magazine in March 1898:
|"The writer began his career in the realms of amateur photography some sixteen or seventeen years ago, when the fad was still in its infancy,and was therefore obliged to depend almost entirely upon on his own efforts in the endeavor to make good negatives, as well as good prints, but today with the multitude of opportunities, the recreation has become so general and wide spread, that it enables the beginner to obtain accurate practical information as to the proper modes of procedure from experienced amateurs, more skilled in many instances than most professionals, without having to record so many failures which necessarily ensued in the beginning of the art. Starting with the uncertain Oxalate of potash and trying the new all fangled chemical combinations as they came into being, I settled upon pyro some years since as being the best so far produced for its many good qualities far outweighs its one bad one i.e. its staining propensity of the hands. There is one matter in connection with making a good negative, for a print must necessarily follow such a one, which should be impressed upon the mind of the beginner, that is, to carry the development along until the high lights are well darkened. I have often noticed that most common fault of many amateurs is that they do not do this sufficiently,hence the result being seen in their imperfect negatives, lacking detail and other desirable printing qualities. In many instances this fault is due to hast and for want of time. It is far better to wait until one has the leisure moment to do the work in view, and to do it well, rather to waste what might be, under proper management, an excellent negative, an honor to the skill and manipulation of the amateur as well as a pleasure to the eye of his friends."|
Tooker was a very skilled amateur with no aspirations to be a professional photographer. However, he was confident about his qualifications and experience to write admirably and technically about the practice in the above article. It is also reasonable to believe that his expertise as a pharmacist were beneficial in negative and print processing. Although he photographed the east end area and specific subjects there is no reference he actively published or offered his images for sale. Only a few of his original prints are known to exist which are held in museums, libraries and private collections.
Points To Ponder
We have to ponder about Tooker's photography because there are virtually no written references regarding his photographic work. Having reviewed his images and notes numerous times over 35 years, extensively researching for his photographic images and, based on my own knowledge of local history and experience with the physical landscape, towns and villages my approach to better understand his photographs was to look at what he did photograph and what he did not and why.
What He Did Not Photograph
- He was a highly respected authority on the Algonquin Indian cultures personally knowing many of them on the South Fork. As referenced in his final catalog of Indian artifacts he notes that Stephen "Talkhouse" Pharaoh collected Indian related artifacts for him. He was fascinated by and painstakingly studied their culture and language. He make frequent trips to their villages with long and mosquito infested sojourns through sandy Neapeague to Montauk visiting Indian Fields, Reed Pond, Oyster Pond, the Lighthouse, Ditch Plains and Fort Hill. He authored a multitude of articles, pamphlets, essays and eventually a resource publication referenced even today by scholars. Yet he took no photographs of the Montauketts or Shinnecock people.
- There were a number of burial grounds and places of importance to the Montauks that he visited and wrote about but took no photographs.
- He was the person who actually interpreted Montaukett place names but took no photos of those locations.
- He dedicated his book to Margaret Olivia Sage, his benefactor, yet no photos of her or her brother Colonel Slocum. (Probably to ill in 1911to consider this).
- He traveled with fellow explorers like Dr. Stilwell on his artifact hunting ventures yet there are no composed photographs of them.
- He was with his wife all the time and yet only two posed pictures.
- He was a bicycle enthusiast but no photos of other bicycle riders.
- In Montauk where he probably lodged at the Second or Third House he took no photos.
- In lived in the world whaling port of Sag Harbor but no photos of whaling ships.
- He visited the Montauk cliff sides passing the Stanford White Houses but took no photos.
- He passed though East Hampton, the big "art "colony but no photos except for the windmills.
- He had four brothers with families yet no family photos.
- He knew prominent members in the community but took no portraits.
- He was town pharmacist was 22 years and the police constable for a short time but took no photos.
There is no reference as what photographer of the time may have influenced Tooker. Did he know or speak with fellow photographers such as John Moran, of East Hampton, the famous western landscape photographer? Did he did know the photographer who snapped the famous image of his friend Stephen Talkhouse? Did he discuss photography or art with other artists? He did know C.Y.Turner the artist who painted the " Queen of the Montauks" in 1888. We don't know.
As a student of history and meticulous researcher perhaps Tooker read about Daguerre and Niepce and reflected on the streetscape photo wondering about the small boy shining shoes on the streets of Paris. Perhaps he read Melville's Moby Dick where in the first chapter he describes images as" the ungraspable phantoms of life." We don't know. The lack of information about Tooker's photographic work is an opportunity to reasonably evaluate and present a possible approach to his photography.
Talking the Talkhouse
When one looks at Tooker's profile you see an intelligent, dedicated, honest and compassionate man. A personlaity that is reflected in his photographic work.
The photo of Stephen Pharoah widely known as "Stephen Talkhouse" and unfortunately acclaimed by P.T. Barnum as "The Last of Montauks" because he was not either is placed on this website to present a perspective of what, who and why may have influenced and motivated Tooker with respect to his approach and style of photography. The two photographs, taken in 1867, of a father and his son, are very early photos of members of the Montauketts. In 1867 Talkhouse was 48 years old and Tooker was 20 but apparently acquainted as referenced in Tooker's 1901 Indian artifacts catalog indicating Talkhouse was collecting artifacts for him at that time. (See actual catalog section below). The catalog line item dates reveal Tooker was active in collecting and researching all of eastern Long Island with one 1865 Bridgehampton notation and another artifact contributor, Jonathan Gould, in Montauk, in 1857. The point is that Tooker was "out in the field" so to speak with the Montauketts and probably knew most of them.
Because of Tooker's knowledge of the Algonquin people and close relationship with the Montauketts he may have realized he was living with history. When one gazes closely at the Stephen "Talkhouse" photo it's like looking at a ancient death mask or a phantom image from antiquity. Along with Slyvester Pharoahs portrait their faces represent the communal face of a dying indigenous culture. As commonly perceived the camera was a mysterious and spirit-taking machine of the white people and probably not welcome among the Montauketts. Tooker was aware of this uncomfortable feeling and out of mutual respect and trust he was not willing to impose on the relationship just for photograph. I would suggest he wanted to but would and did not.
Tooker wrote about his visits to Fort Hill, a famous Montaukett site and burial ground, in the 1880's however, he did not photograph the Indian burial stones until his last trip on July 15, 1898. The only other photograph referring to the Montaukett culture is of him posing in front of Split Rock a meeting place and milestone marker on a path in Hither Woods circa 1898. I suggest that Tooker may have felt that the 1898 trip to Montauk would be the last opportunity to photograph the sites as the servere pain he endured in daily life would probably worsen. He waited all those years to take the site photographs. It's important to note here that to my knowledge no early photos of the Montaukettes exist by any photographer.
The Big Apple Moves to The Harbor
In 1879 when Talkhouse died alone on a Indian trail in Montauk at age 60 Tooker was 32 years-old, married and owned a pharmacy business. It is referenced at that time there were but a handful of local pure blood Montaukett Indians and that the culture, people and language were fading fast as a result of disease, corruption, prejudice and European expansion. Around 1880-1882 after many years of involvement and association with the Montauketts Tooker may have realized that his own culture and community was rapidly changing and shortly would be gone as well.
Tooker's life period (1847-1917) was a remarkable transformational period in the American experiment. Tooker started as a kid fascinated and absorbed with Indian culture but he would eventually witness the final dying days of this great indigenous group knowing the last few people. As a young man he visited their Montauk villages and dwellings and before he died they barely existed as a community with no real homeland. He saw the great windmills that supplied and nourished South Fork communities change from wind power to steam power. He saw some rot away because they were no longer efficient and useful. The newspapers and magazines he read were filling up with photographs to help tell a story not just illustrations and drawings. He saw the huge whaling ships disappear from the harbor and steam ships filling the piers. He grew up using the horse and buggy but witnessed the gradually transistion to the automobile. He saw artists using photographs to help them paint and more people becoming photographers. He saw more buildings being occupied by more people moving to the South Fork. He saw and heard the great train move eastward to barren Montauk. He said good bye to the old timers maybe some who bought in the American revolution. He saw the old pre-American Revolution settlement homes deteriorate and fall down. When he was a teenager the Civil War was going on and when he sold his business at age 51 the Spanish-American War was in the news. He photographed the Rough Riders in Montauk. He saw the shore whaling and beached whale harvesting activties being few and part apart. He witnessed the face of the great Montaukett nation dissolve into aghostly shadow. He saw the "big" world moving to" the Harbor." In view of all this, I think perhaps most importantly and possibly a key motivator, as a historian, archivist, researcher and writer he saw no organized photographic documents of the great places, buildings, settlement houses and windmills. When they were gone the landscape would change and society as he knew it would be gone forever. This was Tooker's world. Thinking about and recording history. With the camera he could document antiquity for future historians and he set out with a plan.
What he did photograph
As the Montaukettes, derived from ancient cultures, were disappearing Tooker recognized that the windmills, the technological wonders of the new world, derived from English design and craftsmanship, would also soon be gone. To memorialize this structures for future generations he knew the camera was the device to use and he was the person to do it. In the late 1880s he photographed all the east end windmills with a larger 6 x 8 camera. As some of dated images tell us the older houses was also a planned documentary venture. (See Image Descriptions). There is also the thought that Tooker's family heritage was English and perhaps he wanted to document the English influence on the new world.
Many of the windmill and house photographs are full frame compositions as opposed to images existing in a pleasant landscape setting. He did not want to leave any information or detail out of the record document. This gives the viewer as sense of presence with the capability and opportunity to study the subject without distractions. (Discussion on Beached Whale photo is forthcoming).
A Final Ponderance
It may well be our fortune that William Wallace Tooker never went to Yale. His dedication to his life's passions and personal beliefs left us and the world at large an invaluable body of knowledge and irreplaceable photographic images. His life story of contributions have a comfortable and rewarding place in American history.
He was a prominent figure on the front lines of intelligently recording early American life. An unequivocal link and voice to the indigenous cultures that would have less recognition and understanding if not for Tooker. I selfishly wish he would taken pictures of the Montauketts and Shinnecocks but in the same breath I appreciate, admire and respect Tooker for not doing so.
As Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick in 1851 " It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all." There are many definitions for the camera but what it really does is instantly grasp or better yet snatch those phantoms out of real life and memorialize them forever. Whatever influenced and encouraged Tooker to pick up the camera and record those images is greatly appreciated.
William Wallace Tooker, the metaphysical man, of Paumanack.
Photo Credit Notes . As referenced in Paula Fleming's book on the Shindler Catalogue of National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution the photos were taken for Eliza Latham by either J. Warner of Sag Harbor or J.W. Powell of Southampton. These are copies of the original print and may have copyright protection. Contact National Anthropological Archives .
- He was the town pharmacist for 22 years who knew everybody yet no photographs.