Bringing a Forgotten Photographer Back into View: the J.S. Wooley Project
An early 20th century Lake George photographer is about to receive the attention that many local collectors, historians and photographers believe he richly deserves.
The photographer is Jesse Sumner Wooley (1867-1943), and the J.S. Wooley Project, a collaborative effort of photographer Richard Timberlake, Bolton Landing collector and resident Matt Finley and the Brookside Museum in Ballston Spa, has already produced standing-room only slide shows and lectures at the Brookside Museum and Silver Bay, where Wooley was the official photographer from 1908 to 1923
The project will culminate in a book, to be published by Syracuse University Press next year. The photographs will be accompanied by a text by Phil Terrie, the scholar whose books include “Contested Terrain: A New History of Nature and People in the Adirondacks.”
“Wooley covered a lot of territory, and some of his finest work is of Lake George—the steamboats, the lake vistas, the hotels-,” says Terrie. “He apparently loved taking pictures and was seldom without a camera, even long after he retired.”
According to Matt Finley, the project originated with his late father’s deep, archival collections of Lake George history.
“My father, Gardner Finley, was Bolton’s town historian, and in the process of sorting through his historical material we came across hundreds of paper negatives of photographs by Wooley, notably some panoramic pictures. I didn’t know at the time how special they were, or that they had never been seen,” said Finley.
Photographer Richard Timberlake, who was first shown examples of Wooley’s work in Henry Caldwell’s Black Bass Antique shop in 2011, was among those who recognized the value of the photographs, said Finley.
“These panoramic photos are 110 years old, and they’re gorgeous.” said Timberlake. “Wooley considered himself an artist before photography was recognized as an art form.”
Among thosre trends was the appetite for post cards, which began to emerge in the first decade of the 20th century.
Wooley was among the first Lake George post card photographers, and the Finley archive also contains hundreds of photos that were in all likelihood repurposed as post cards.
Wooley’s pre-eminence as a Lake George photographer may have owed something to geography. His studio was not in some distant city like New York, but, rather, in Ballston Spa.
Wooley, originally from Wilton, opened his studio in Ballston Spa in 1887, when he was only twenty, according to Robert Bogdan, the author of “Exposing the Wilderness: Early 20th Century Adirondack Postcard Photographers.”
In 1893, Wooley joined Seneca Ray Stoddard on a photographic tour of the Adirondacks, which may have been the only time Wooley photographed the Adirondacks, according to Phil Terrie.
Stoddard and Wooley worked together, in some form, for another four years.
“Stoddard mentored Wooley,” says Timberlake. “You can see Stoddard’s influence in some of his photographs, in how he composed his shots.”
As the official photographer for Silver Bay, Bogdan notes, Wooley was given studio space as well as the right to sell his photographs.
No doubt, the groups that used the campus as a conference center were good customers, as were guests who wanted postcards of regattas, special events and Silver Bay scenes.
As it happens, Finley’s great aunt was an annual summer visitor to Silver Bay and knew Wooley. In fact, his grandmother did as well, since both grew up in Ballston Spa, a block and a half not far from Wooley’s studio.
Two weeks ago, Finley happened to remove a photograph of his grandmother as a girl from its frame and discovered that it was the work of Wooley himself, created in his Ballston Spa studio.
Finley has no doubt that his family’s relationship with Wooley is the reason why his father acquired such a rich lode of the photographer’s work.
“I’m funding this project, not only to honor Wooley, but to honor my family,” said Finley.