history talk 2-25-05

Springfield photographer Guy Mathis found this insouciant little subject on the Illinois State Fairgrounds, where he had accompanied his father, a whitewasher, who was preparing the grounds for the Illinois State Fair of 1902.
Springfield photographer Guy Mathis found this insouciant little subject on the Illinois State Fairgrounds, where he had accompanied his father, a whitewasher, who was preparing the grounds for the Illinois State Fair of 1902.

Among the many collections that make up the Audio-Visual Department of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, the Guy Mathis photographic collection stands out for its unparalleled documentation of turn-of-the-century Springfield, particularly the downtown area. The approximately 1,700 images are a fascinating visual chronicle of a fairly narrow window of time — roughly 1899-1905.

Mathis, who traveled in a smart social set, captured both interior and exterior views of many of Springfield’s grand homes, including the Executive Mansion, and the people who lived in them. The collection features many images of Illinois National Guardsmen, taken during their annual summer encampments at Camp Lincoln, as well as pictures of the state fair, Washington Park, local businesses, and prominent citizens and politicians, including the May 1901 funeral of Gov. John Tanner and the October 1902 visit of President Theodore Roosevelt.

The young, ambitious, and entrepreneurial Mathis came to Springfield in the late 1880s from Princeton, Ill., the county seat of Bureau County, where his father was engaged in the mercantile business. On arriving here, he established himself as a clerk in the B.H. Ferguson China Shop, at the corner of Sixth and Monroe streets, which, according to Ferguson’s 1903 obituary, was the largest and best china and glassware store in central Illinois. It was a move that characterized Mathis’ entire career — he set his standards high and allied himself only with the finest-quality brand names in his every business endeavor. He was also Springfield’s first automobile dealer, selling Cadillacs.

Ferguson was the president of the Marine Bank, and he hired Joseph F. Boyd to manage the china shop. Ferguson, who himself had cut his teeth as a teenager clerking in brother-in-law Jacob Bunn’s dry-goods store, apparently was close with both Boyd and Mathis, in a paternal way, in his own little fiefdom on North Fifth Street, near Edwards Place.

Ferguson’s grand house, the site of which is now a vacant lot (where he and Mrs. Ferguson entertained President Roosevelt at a luncheon party in 1902) stood at 815 N. Fifth St. The Boyd family lived at No. 821, Mathis at No. 823. It wasn’t long after moving in, however, that Mathis won the heart of the girl next door (who just happened to be the boss’s daughter), and he and Grace Boyd were married at the Boyd family home on May 28, 1891. The house, which still stands, was Mathis’ home for the rest of his life.

Mathis was content to clerk in the china shop until 1896, when he founded the Springfield Camera Co. at the corner of Fifth and Monroe streets. His store, the first of its kind in the city, carried a full line of Kodaks and other cameras and all the supplies needed by both professional and amateur photographers, as well as complete developing and finishing services.

The business of photography wasn’t the easy point-and-shoot undertaking that it is today. When one considers what a cumbersome, tedious, and time-consuming process it was to produce a photograph, Mathis’ technical precision, artful eye and sheer professionalism become that much more apparent (although photography was fast evolving at that time; the Kodak “Brownie” was introduced in 1900 and sold for a dollar).

“His is the best turn-of-the-century collection that we have,” says Mary Michals, audiovisual curator of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. “Whether it was people or buildings, he selected beautiful subjects.”

In a story headlined “Expert with a Camera” in the Springfield News of Sept. 10, 1902, Mathis described the attributes of photographers who seek to produce art:

 “The great trouble with nine-tenths of the amateur photographers is that they do not persevere. They are satisfied with taking a picture and turning out something that looks like the object snapped. They get a photographer to complete their work and are suited. They do not get the real pleasure out of the work. The other tenth go into it for all they are worth and the result is that very soon they are turning out really artistic productions.

“The more artistic a person is by nature, the better the photograph is likely to be, the amount of work being the same in all cases. The artistic eye will pick out the artistic scene on land or water. It will arrange a group or a figure so that the lights and shadows are just right and will direct the posing to the advantage of the entire picture.”

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