Jan 18, 2006

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Herman Simonson was Saugatuck's
pioneer photographer.

Early photographers had to carefully
time exposures with a stop watch.

Kodak camera advertisement poster.

Donkey "Dynamite" was a live prop.

Studio shots were popular with
tourists and locals.

Simonson Studio No. 2 was
located on Water Street.


The photos in our lives capture moments—large and small—that bring back memories. Photography made its first big impression in America during the Civil War with the heart-rending and historic pictures taken by Mathew Brady.

To capture these images, Brady needed heavy camera equipment, a darkroom tent equipped with chemicals to coat and develop his glass plates; and he had to shoot and develop the plates within 15 minutes—before the wet emulsion dried. Photographs not only recorded daily life, but soon took on political power. Presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln commented on Brady’s portrait: “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me President of the United States".

Only trained professionals had the skill and patience to practice photography in these early days. A photographer had to be a tinkerer, chemist, psychologist, and have a mountain of patience to deal with this strange new craft. Fortunately a young American inventor, George Eastman, wanted to make photography simple enough that anyone could take a picture and preserve family memories.

By 1890, Eastman had developed roll film and a simple light-weight camera that anyone could use, and the photographic revolution began. Eastman coined the term “Kodak” for his products (he liked the simple sound), and soon everyone was taking pictures.

About this time, a young Saugatuck lad, Herman Simonson, had taken a strong interest in photography. Herman’s parents were native Norwegians who had come to America for a better life. Herman must have inherited their strong work ethic, for after graduating from the Illinois School of Photography in 1905, he returned to Saugatuck and opened a photo studio on Culver Street.

His business boomed enough to open three branches—two in Saugatuck and one in Glenn. Part of Herman’s entourage were several small donkeys which customers could ride for their portraits.

In addition to these gag shots and portraits, Simonson left a great photographic heritage of life in Saugatuck from 1900 to the 1940’s. Many of these valuable glass and film negatives survive in the collection of R.J. and Diane Peterson.

We are fortunate that men of vision like Herman Simonson lived here and captured the way it was in another time and day.   by Rob Carey

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