A few years ago, Paul Beck, Special Collections Librarian at the UW-La Crosse’s Murphy Library, accepted a donation of six hundred glass plate photographic negatives. A La Crosse alumnus had acquired them at a farm auction in Indiana. No one there knew much about the negatives except that they had come from Wisconsin and, as scribed on many of the images, they were made by the “Taylor Bros., Adams, Wisconsin.”
Beck attempted to learn more about the negatives and the photographers with little success. The Adams County Historical Society had a collection of Taylor Brothers prints, but did not know much about the brothers themselves. Impressed by the quality of the images and the subjects they depicted, Beck had them scanned and added to the Murphy Library’s Digital Collection. All nine-hundred plus images may be viewed at http://murphylibrary.uwlax.edu/digital/index.html.
In the last year or so, researchers in Adams County have learned more about these two men who, while they plied the photographer’s trade, created fine photographic art.
Born in the 1880s, Leon and Eugene Taylor grew up on their parents’ farm in the Adams County town of Monroe, about a mile east of what is now the Petenwell Flowage of the Wisconsin River. Soil scientists list the sand soil here as among the poorest in the state. Their findings were supported by farmers like the Taylors who, after a single generation of hard-earned failure, parked the plow and sought other means to make a living. Eugene and Leon thought they could make a go of it in the photographic line and, about 1910, acquired a heavy box camera, tripod and hood, cartons of glass negatives, plus trays, chemicals and paper to process and print “pictures.”
To make a living in sparsely settled country, they had to hit the road, first by horse and buggy, then by auto. They covered the territory from Columbia and Marquette counties west to Juneau, Jackson and La Crosse. Group shots were popular and potentially profitable: students at rural and village schools, entire church congregations lined up on the lawn, National Guard units in camp, Ho Chunk gatherings, settler families proud of their kin and their kine.
Public buildings of note, Main Steet shops, grain mills, steam excavators, train depots, bridges, even cemeteries, any image that might garner interest and a sale was worth capturing. They had no eyes for landscapes or nature, no forests primeval, rock-strewn bluffs or river views. Instead, when the North Western railroad created the village of Adams, the Taylors set up a tent near the tracks and chronicled the birth of one of Wisconsin’s last railroad boom towns.
Yet they had a gift. As their portraits make evident, the Taylors could capture the humanity of their subjects and transfer it to the photo plate. They were especially adept at depicting people and animals together, able to calm the discomfort, ease the shyness, settle the fears of man, woman, child and beast for the long seconds required to make the picture. A boy stands between two work horses and cradles his pet dog in his arms. A smiling woman transcends the dull chore of the chicken coop to pose with her children and her poultry. A young couple sits, house-proud in their new front yard, while the hired hand holds their prize horse and the cow dog watches, poised at his master’s side.
Rare it is to find a face blank, frozen or empty of expression in a Taylor portrait. The subjects smile, grimace, turn a profile or look straight back at the lens, invariably speaking to the camera in a visual language acquired from the photographers.
The Taylors continued to make photos until the 1930s. Eugene died in 1952. His obituary does not identify him as a photographer. Leon’s death notice has yet to be found. We do not know how the glass negatives got to Indiana.