Southern Exposure: The Life and Times of C. R. Rees & Co.
By D. A. Serrano
One day at a long forgotten relic show, the late Herb Peck sat behind a table stocked full of Confederate images. Herb, along with William Albaugh were considered pioneers in collecting and Herb would happily answer this novice collectors foolish questions with patience and good humor. That day Herb showed me several ambrotypes he had for sale and when he got to one in particular that was interesting to me quoted a price that was three times as much as similar images. My “why so much” was answered with a quick reply “It’s a Rees” and showed me were it had been neatly inscribed in the emulsion REES. The cased image had a silvery luminescence’s that was incomparable to anything else I had ever seen, a simple Confederate soldier brought to life by an artist’s camera. What little was known about Rees was that he operated in Richmond during the war and never achieved the fame of his Northern counterparts like Brady, Alexander Gardiner and Timothy O’Sullivan to name a few. Outside of a few Confederate collectors his name was all but forgotten.
Thirty years and dozens of shows later the story would continue when at the recent Richmond Civil War show. Tom Liljenguist who has been generously donating civil war images to the Library of Congress showed me two cased images that he had recently purchased. The first ambrotype was of a little girl standing on a chair, maybe two or three years old beautifully tinted and posed. The second was of a little boy similarly posed holding an ambrotype case with what was clearly an image of a soldier. Although uncommon, this hadn’t been the first time I had seen such photographs of children and sweethearts holding photographs of dear ones far away. What set these apart was the tiny signature in the corner, REES. Tom remarked that these where the only civilian images signed by Rees he had ever seen and maybe someone could identify the soldier the boy was holding. I thought he might be in one of the books somewhere and I’d look when I got home. Little did I know what an unusual conclusion it might lead to?
The long ride back home gave me time to think of an article I’d been contemplating for several years. Bringing back this long forgotten artist and chronicler of Confederate soldiers wouldn’t be as difficult as one would think. With the help of the Internet, what would have taken years took only a few days and what emerges is a career devoted to photography from its earliest days to the advent of the motion picture.
Charles Richard Rees was born not in the South, but in Allentown, Pennsylvania to German immigrants Bernard and Sarah Rees in January 1830. The spelling of the family name alters back and forth from Rees to Reese for no apparent reason, I guess just to try ones researching patience. His parents would have several children and among them another son Edwin would be born a few years later. Charles started his career as a daguerreotypist in Cincinnati around 1850 probably working in a studio under the tutelage of an experienced operator. The new photography process was sweeping the nation and rich and poor flocked to studios to have their “daggertype” taken. Learning the process in those days wasn’t difficult,” I paid fifty dollars for instruction and a complete set of apparatus, consisting of a quarter size camera and stand with three legs, two coating boxes, a mercury bath, a hand buff, a clamp headrest to attach to a chair, and a clamp to hold the plate while being buffed. With this outfit I commenced business.” So wrote early photographer Abram Bogardus. In 1851 Charles with his brother Edwin opened a studio in Richmond at the corner of Main and 8th St. a few blocks from the Virginia Capitol. For some unknown reason Rees packed up his studio and relocated to New York City. Perhaps Richmonds small population at the time could not support a daguerreotypist, but for whatever the reason Rees takes over the studio of Harrison and Holmes at 289 Broadway in what was then the new photo industry’s epicenter. The area around Broadway in lower Manhattan contained over a dozen studios with some of the best photographers in the business like Brady, Gurney, Anthony and Bogardus just to name a few. Competition was fierce, and to set himself apart, Charles passed himself off as a European political refugee with a new process called the “German method of picture making.” This process was the new idea of division of labor with all steps done by a different so called expert. The sitter would first purchase a ticket for one sitting and move through a queue till they were posed and photographed. His boast of having created over 200,000 daguerreotypes in one year seems a little far-fetched even with his assembly line methods. Calling himself Professor Reese he chauvinistically stated, “Female Daguerrians are generally out of place (in the studio), pants or no pants.” In some of his 1854 advertising one can see a consummate self promoter trying to get ahead in the largest city in America. He cut prices on portraits to the sum of twenty five cents for a 1/9th plate, sixty two cents with a case, a low price even by 1850 standards. But by 1855 Rees disappears from the cities records after only a little more than two years in business.
By 1859 the Richmond area had become the adopted home of Charles and his new wife Minerva, a 19 year old Yankee girl from Ohio. The thirty year old photographer listed Ashland VA as his home, 10,000 in real estate and two young sons, James and Eddie. With his brother Edwin he set up a studio at 135 Main St. called Rees’ Steam Gallery. Richmond became the new capital of the Confederacy and the influx of politicians and especially soldiers meant a dramatic increase in business. At a new address, 145 Main St. over West and Johnston’s bookstore, Charles advertised “Prices for finely executed photographs 4$ and upwards, you are not detained more than 10 minutes.” One has to wonder if the 4$ is a misprint as this would have been half the average soldiers monthly salary early in the war and his competition were advertising photos for as little as a dollar. As the patriotic fervor swept the new nation, Rees was kept busy with new recruits flocking to his gallery by the hundreds if not thousands. Shorthanded, Charles advertised in the Richmond Whig asking for an experienced ambrotypist to apply to the gallery. As a transplanted Yankee, Charles showed his patriotism to the South by joining the 19th Virginia Militia, a regiment made up of Richmond shopkeepers, railroad workers and local firemen. Certainly not battle hardened veterans, the 19th were used primarily as prison guards in the city and were called out for extreme emergencies.
As the war dragged on the first flush of eager recruits coming to the studio dwindled. Materials of all types were in short supply and the Silver Nitrate, Collodian and other photographic supplies were no exception. Charles and Minerva would lose their son Eddie to Scarlet Fever, have their slave arrested for purse snatching, and have to sell three horses to the government to raise money. Local Richmonders suffered horribly as the war progressed, with food shortages, inflation and the constant Union army threats keeping everyone nervously alert. Soldiers weren’t coming to the gallery in droves anymore as most were at the front, and by this time weren’t interested in having their “picksure” taken, but were just trying to stay alive. Business probably couldn’t get worse, with most retail shops in Richmond closing down altogether, not from a lack of customers, but a lack of supplies to sell. The time for frivolity had ended and the time for survival had begun.
Everything in Richmond would change on the morning of April 3rd 1865. Prior to evacuating, whether by design or mistake, General Ewell ordered the tobacco warehouse burned. As the last organized troops crossed the Mayo Bridge, the downtown warehouse area was already engulfed in flame. At the head of the rear guard crossing the bridge, General Martin W. Gary leaned down from his horse to the engineer in charge and briskly ordered “Blow her to Hell.” With that, the war effectively ended for Richmonders but the devastation was just beginning. The fire quickly spread north to the businesses on Main Street and the Rees studio along with many other establishments was destroyed. The end to a career? Not quite.
Almost as soon as the embers of downtown Richmond died, the rebuilding would begin. By 1866 Rees was back in business at a new studio at 913 Main St. A few photos of occupying Union soldiers are marked Rees & Bro. with Federal tax stamps. These would have been made prior to the repeal on the tax in August, 1866. The back mark on a Carte de Visite from 1868 shows a substantial two story building with Rees and Co. emblazoned across the front. His brother Edwin and W.G.R. Frayser also worked at the large new establishment were all types of pictures and portraits could be obtained from composite portraits of dozens of Confederate generals to large albumins of Robert E. Lee. One of the first Black photographers James Conway Farley would apprentice there and learn the trade under Charles tutelage becoming famous in his own right. Around 1871 his brother Edwin would relocate to Petersburg and go into partnership with G.W. Minnis dying there in 1874. Charles continued to show a flair for copywriting and was always seeking ways to bring in new clients, an ad in 1872 states” In consideration of the scarcity of money we have endeavored to reduce our prices, photographs equal to anything produced in New York and Philadelphia.” Perhaps a down turn in the Richmond economy or for some other unknown reason, Charles, at the age of fifty also relocates to Petersburg setting up shop at the J.E. Rockwell Gallery on Sycamore St. By now his oldest son James would be working with him, soon to be followed by another son Edward Jr. In Petersburg Rees and Sons flourished and many fine Victorian portraits from this period show Charles’s mastery with a camera.
Charles R. Rees was still working behind the camera into his 80’s. His attitude towards women photographers had softened and now his wife Minerva also worked in the studio taking pictures. Charles passed on in 1914. His remains were sent to his adopted Richmond and rest at Hollywood Cemetery; section C, lot 1 with his wife and children. The Rees studio would continue under his only surviving child James Conway Rees. James would live on until 1955, one of the few men left who might have remembered the Civil War and his father’s work during the conflict. With the advent of the Great Depression, Petersburg’s Rees Studios took its last photograph and closed its doors.
Oh, and by the way. The mystery of who the soldier was in the original ambrotype that started this quest might have been solved inadvertently. Coming into my possession just before this articles completion were a group of Rees family photos kindly emailed me by a descendant. Most were common Victorian cabinet cards of long forgotten relatives, but one was a copy of an ambrotype ascribed to C.R. Rees as photographer. This image was one of the few identified, James Conway Rees age 4 taken 1864. His resemblance to the original little boy is remarkable. This would be only the third civilian picture ascribed to C.R. Rees. Could the boy holding the cased image of the soldier be Charles’s son James? That probably means the soldier would be? I’ll let the readers decide.
Special thanks to all the people who supplied images and information for this article, in particular, Tom Liljenquist, Ann Drury Wellford, Museum of the Confederacy, and James Conway Rees IV, Director, Washington’s Mount Vernon Museum and Gardens.
OldPhotographic.com would like to thank the author Dom Serrano for writng a very interesting article on the Rees & Co. photographers. Please don't forget to vote on this article if you find it as interesting as we do.
Tags: images, cased, confederate, image, life, collectors, herb, rees, times, showed, emulsion, luminescence’s, silvery
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