Found In The Archives

Frontier Utah As Seen By Mormon Bishop, Documentary Photographer

George Edward Anderson, circa 1890

hide captionGeorge Edward Anderson, circa 1890

George Edward Anderson/Harold B. Lee Library/Brigham Young University

George Edward Anderson differed from many of the world's great documentary photographers in that he served for four years as a bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and spent a stretch as a missionary in England. But overall he shared the hallmark characteristics: toiling in obscurity, strained family life, unwavering vision and a poverty-inducing obsession for his subject and the act of photographing.

Photography came of age at the same time as Mormonism — and they moved west together. Anderson's mentor, Charles Roscoe Savage, settled in Utah a little ahead of the arrival of William Henry Jackson and the other Western survey photographers.

  • Bishop Hitchcock, Clawson, UtahNote: The captions in this gallery appear as they were originally noted by the photographer. Names refer either to the people photographed, or the commissioner of the photo.
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    Bishop Hitchcock, Clawson, UtahNote: The captions in this gallery appear as they were originally noted by the photographer. Names refer either to the people photographed, or the commissioner of the photo.
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University
  • George Naylor, Sugarhouse Ward, Salt Lake City, 1903
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    George Naylor, Sugarhouse Ward, Salt Lake City, 1903
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University
  • Mrs. Barney, Lake Shore, 1914
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    Mrs. Barney, Lake Shore, 1914
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University
  •  Ether Blanchard, circa 1902
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    Ether Blanchard, circa 1902
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University
  • Gundry's Store, Lewiston
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    Gundry's Store, Lewiston
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University
  •  William Wainwright Bakery, 1903
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    William Wainwright Bakery, 1903
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University
  • Scofield Baseball team
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    Scofield Baseball team
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University
  • Erastus L. Otteson, 1915
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    Erastus L. Otteson, 1915
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University
  • Sarah Nisonger
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    Sarah Nisonger
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University
  • Mrs. Albert Manwaring, 1903
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    Mrs. Albert Manwaring, 1903
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University
  • Reed Clements, Louis Tranchell, Gilbert Dillingham and snakes, 1915
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    Reed Clements, Louis Tranchell, Gilbert Dillingham and snakes, 1915
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University
  • Christian Otteson, Huntington, 1898
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    Christian Otteson, Huntington, 1898
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University
  • 300 East Provo, looking north, Belmont home
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    300 East Provo, looking north, Belmont home
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University
  • Christian Otteson
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    Christian Otteson
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University
  • Jex and Sons Broom Factory, 1896
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    Jex and Sons Broom Factory, 1896
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University
  • Street Scene in Provo, 1920
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    Street Scene in Provo, 1920
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University
  • Covered Bodies in Schoolroom after 1900 Scofield Mine DisasterNote: On May 1, 1900, there was an explosion at a coal mine in Scofield. For the next two days, the people of Scofield and nearby Clear Creek tended to the dead and wounded as best as they could. Anderson made an extensive photographic record of the event.
    Hide caption
    Covered Bodies in Schoolroom after 1900 Scofield Mine DisasterNote: On May 1, 1900, there was an explosion at a coal mine in Scofield. For the next two days, the people of Scofield and nearby Clear Creek tended to the dead and wounded as best as they could. Anderson made an extensive photographic record of the event.
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University
  • Caskets after Scofield Utah Mine Disaster of 1900
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    Caskets after Scofield Utah Mine Disaster of 1900
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University
  • Car of flowers casket of James Gatherum who was badly burned and died in mine explosion winter quarters
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    Car of flowers casket of James Gatherum who was badly burned and died in mine explosion winter quarters
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University
  • Scofield Utah #33; Mrs. Seth Jones and Family and Casket at time of Mine Disaster
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    Scofield Utah #33; Mrs. Seth Jones and Family and Casket at time of Mine Disaster
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University
  • A family portrait of eleven people
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    A family portrait of eleven people
    Courtesy of The Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University

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The 1870s, when Anderson began working, was an era when the railroad was still new in Utah. In his images, the presence of trains — in the background and foreground — is a reminder of the nature of Utah's separation from and connection to the outside world. As with the blues, it is this sort of occasionally broken isolation that can lead to the best kind of innovation and originality.

F. P. Whitmore, town marshal and butcher, Springville, Utah, circa 1895

hide captionF. P. Whitmore, town marshal and butcher, Springville, Utah, circa 1895

George Edward Anderson/Harold B. Lee Library/Brigham Young University

Along with compelling studio portraiture, his signature approach was to photograph people positioned in front of their homes or businesses. He managed to make a living this way, and he also left a remarkable historical record of life in Utah, what it looks like to settle a region, and what kind of stuff people owned.

Through the repetition of this theme and variation, these arrangements give way to a nuanced and animated view of Utah life: its commerce, its piety, its immigration, its stewardship and husbandry. He showed their grieving, a desert agriculture that strove to create abundance out of desolation, and the West that was, in the end, finally settled by the automobile.

Anderson was highly aware of his role in creating and preserving the historical record, and along with the ordinary, he had an eye for the oddness of details, such as the young man who made a home-fashioned harp out of a bicycle frame or the boys with snakes in his studio.

A. A. Day, Clear Creek, Utah

hide captionA. A. Day, Clear Creek, Utah

George Edward Anderson/Harold B. Lee Library/Brigham Young University

Seen with modern eyes, it's hard not to draw a parallel to Mike Disfarmer's portraits: the depth of the topography of his subjects' faces, and the ways in which individual lives are in dissonance with the small rural community they make up. The plates with damaged emulsion, like black clouds bearing down on the sitters, make them beautiful in a way that would have been foreign to Anderson but that add dramatically to their power for us.

Anderson died in 1928, largely unknown and leaving behind more than 15,000 glass plate negatives. Those that survived passed through a series of private collections before landing in a few repositories. The majority are at the L. Tom Perry Special Collections at the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University, where the collection can be seen online.

Further reading:

Rell G. Francis, The Utah Photographs of George Edward Anderson

Nelson B. Wadsworth, Set in Stone, Fixed in Glass: The Mormons, the West, and Their Photographers


Found in the Archives, a Picture Show miniseries running at the beginning of each month, features archival films and found images selected by researcher Rich Remsberg.

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