Tuesday, 26 April 2011

E.W. Merrill - From Cyanotypes to Sitka's Father of Pictures

This is the only example in my collection of a cyanotype. Although the process was discovered early in the history of photography, the cyanotype was often regarded as aesthetically inappropriate because of its brilliant blue colour. Nevertheless it has since enjoyed several resurgences of popularity including most recently, and ironically, some considerable attention in the field of contemporary artistic photography. It was used for many decades prior to the advent of cheap plan photocopying as a means of cheap architectural and engineering drawing reproduction, known as the "blueprint."

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The cyanotype print measures 56 x 85 mm and is mounted centrally on a 101 x 127 mm (roughly 4" x 5") plain card mount with no marks identifying the photographer. It shows a youngish man and woman standing and seated, respectively, in front of a house with substantial wooden railing perhaps bordering a porch or verandah. The sleeves of the dress worn by the woman suggest to me a date of around 1891 to 1894.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

On the reverse of the card mount is written in black ink, "Mr. Merrill -" and "Mrs. M -." This photograph was one of several given to me a few years ago by my kind friend Irene Savory of New Hampshire. They formed a collection of "orphan" photographs which had been accumulated by her father Louis Dubois, a keen amateur photographer and documenter of local history and events in the town of Hampton.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Also in this small collection was a standard cabinet card portrait, showing a woman - apparently the same woman as seen in the cyanotype - and a young child, possibly a girl, two to three years old. The pair are standing and seated on the front step of a house, the front door being clearly visible, as is the name plate which states, "O.N. Fernald."

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The reverse of this card mount does have a photographer's stamp: "Photographed by E.W. Merrill, Danvers, Mass.." From my online research it became apparent fairly quickly that the photographer was Elbridge Warren Merrill (1870-1929), who was born and grew up in Massachusetts, and worked as an engraver and news photographer in Danvers and Boston before moving to Alaska in the late 1890s - more of that later. It was also evident that E.W. Merrill did not marry, so who were the Mr and Mrs Merrill and child in the photographs? The Draft Registration Card for the First World War that Elbridge Merrill filled out in October 1915 lists a "Mrs A.H. Merrill, Boston, Mass" as his nearest relative, which provided the first clue.

Image courtesy of Archive.org
Residence of A.H. Merrill, Berry Street, Danvers, c.1899

Initially, I thought this must be his sister-in-law, but the next break came from Danvers, Massachusetts, a book about the town and its inhabitants published by the local newspaper, The Danvers Mirror, in 1899.
Albert Henry Merrill ... was born in Peabody, Mass., October 13, 1864 ... He was married December 17, 1885, to Addie Frances Merrill, and has a pleasant home on Berry street. Mr. Merrill devotes his time during the racing season to the duties of a professional starting judge and has a reputation in that capacity second to no man in the country.

Image courtesy of Archive.org
Mr. Albert H. Merrill

Most important was the inclusion of a photograph of Albert H. Merrill, making it obvious that he and his wife Addie were the subjects of the cyanotype.

Image courtesy of Archive.org

According to The Pillsbury Family, published in 1898, Addie Frances and Elbridge Samuel (later changed to Warren) Merrill were the children of Samuel F. Merrill and Mary Evelyn née Pillsbury, originally of Newburyport. Elbridge Merrill therefore took the cabinet portrait of his sister and niece Laura E. Merrill (born Dec 1889) around 1892, and it is possible that he was also responsible for the cyanotype of his sister and brother-in-law.

Image courtesy of NYPL Digital Gallery & Wikipedia
Onward and upward over the Chilkoot Pass, 1898
From a stereoview by B.W. Kilburn

The life and work of E.W. Merrill appears to have been researched in some considerable detail by Sharon Bohn Gmelch. Her studies were published in both a journal article (Gmelch, 1995) and a book (Gmelch, 2008), neither of which I've been able to access in anything more than fragmentary form, courtesy of Google Books' snippet view. From census and trade directory and other records, I've established that Merrill produced photographs of a variety of subjects, mainly in Danvers, between 1890 and 1898, although it is unclear whether the photography was a sideline or his primary occupation.

Image courtesy of the Sitka Tribal Library
Portrait of E.W. Merrill near his cabin, Mt. Verstovia, Sitka (STA-RHC-08-015)
Image courtesy of the Sitka Tribal Library

In 1897 or 1898, however, Merrill succumbed to the lure of the Klondike gold rush, heading for Seattle where he and two others purchased a vessel and sailed north. The most popular route to the gold fields at the time was via Sitka or Juneau to Skagway, then up over either the Chilkoot or White Pass, and down the headwaters of the Yukon River to Klondike City (Adney, 1900).

Image © and collection of Sealaska Heritage Institute
Portrait of unidentified Tlingit family, by E.W. Merrill, Sitka
PO018: Bessie Visaya Photograph Collection
Courtesy of the Sealaska Heritage Institute

As with the vast majority of the fortune seekers, Merrill failed in his quest for a bonanza at the Klondike, and returned to Sitka, the 1900 census recording his arrival there in October the previous year. He worked at odd jobs for what must have been a very short period before opening a curio store and photographic studio, the latter catering both for the local community as well as the burgeoning tourist trade. The large format (5" x 6½") print depicting an unidentified Tlingit family (above) is probably an early example of his work in Sitka, showing significant similarities in style and composition with the portraits that he had produced in Danvers.

Image courtesy of the Sitka Tribal Library
Portrait of two men in regalia on the deck of the Annahootz house
by E.W. Merrill, 1899 (STA-RHC-01-035)
Image courtesy of the Sitka Tribal Library

Over the next three decades Merrill "approached his subject matter with an artist’s eye that paid attention to lighting and composition," the miscellany of subjects ranging from landscapes to community events, and resulting in the accumulation of a large and varied portfolio. He appears to have eschewed the conventional studio portraits of the day, with their arranged props and carefully chosen painted scenic backdrops. Although some individual indoors portraits exist with plain backgrounds, he tended to capture his human subjects outdoors, often using as backdrops the characteristic white painted wooden weatherboard walls of Sitka buildings. The colourful, intricate and exotic designs of his subjects' clothing and traditional artifacts provided a dramatic contrast, which produced stunning images.

Image courtesy of the National Park Service, Sitka
Portrait of unidentified Tlingit man by E.W. Merrill (SITK 3935)
Image courtesy of the National Park Service, Sitka

His portrayal of the indigenous people of Sitka was markedly different from popular trends, showing considerable respect for the Tlingit, their customs and their history (Salicki, 2009).
Merrill’s photographic style varies sharply from the majority of indigenous images of the time. He adopted a realist stance to his photographs that omitted a romanticized vision of the Tlingit. The images did not conform to common stereotypes of noble savage or assimilated peoples. Merrill depicted the Tlingit in a contemporary context that was saturated with European influence and exposure.

Image courtesy of the National Park Service, Sitka
Portrait of Russian Orthodox clergymen by E.W. Merrill (SITK 3802)
Image courtesy of the National Park Service, Sitka

Merrill did not restrict his clientele to native subjects. He also photographed the European settlers, both American and Russian, as exemplified by this unusual portrait of a group of Russian Orthodox clergymen, arrayed on the steps of what was presumably their church.

Image courtesy of the National Park Service, Sitka
Totem Walk, Sitka National Monument, by E.W. Merrill (SITK 3822)
Image courtesy of the National Park Service, Sitka

Many of his images reflected his keen "interest in natural history, anthropology and ethnology." He was involved with the erection and preservation of historic totem poles along trails in what is now the Sitka National Historical Park, and the postcards that he published included photographs that he took there.

Image © and courtesy of Nate Kauffman
Merrill Rock memorial plaque, dated 1932, Sitka
Image © and courtesy of Nate Kauffman via Flickr

Merill died of pneumonia on 27 October 1929, aged 59, a eulogy in the Alaska Weekly describing him as Sitka's "Father of Pictures." His legacy to the photohistory of the region was substantial (Salicki, 2009):
While his photographs did function as tourist goods and entered into a wider pattern of circulation, they were also revered and used in Sitka. During his lifetime, Merrill’s images were a constant feature in local newspapers and books. After his death, his collection of glass plate negatives also stayed relatively close to the community that produced them.
About 1100 of Merrils's original glass plate negatives survive, and are currently held by the National Park Service at Sitka.


Gmelch, Sharon Bohn (2008) The Tlingit Encounter with Photography, University of Pennsylvania Press, 210p.

Gmelch, Sharon Bohn (1995) Elbridge Warren Merrill: The Tlingit of Alaska, History of Photography, Summer95, Vol. 19 Issue 21899-1929.

Salicki, Joanna (2009) Origins of an Image - E.W. Merrill, the Tlingit and the Potlatch, Anthropology and Photography at the American Museum of Natural History blog, 15 April 2009, [Accessed 26 April 2011].

Anon (nd) Guide to Elbridge W. Merrill Photograph Collection, ca. 1897-1929, Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

Adney, Tappan (1994) The Klondike Stampede, (Facsimile Edition ) UBC Press, 471p. (Originally publ. 1900 by Harper & Bros)

Antonson, Joan M. & Hanable, William S. (1987) An Administrative History of Sitka National Historical Park, from the National Park Service

E.W. Merrill Photograph Gallery, from the National Park Service, Department of the Interior.

PO018: Bessie Visaya Photograph Collection, from the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

Sitka Tribal Library


  1. Splendid detective work on identifying the couple in the cyanotype, it's a gorgeous photo!

  2. Thanks Lisa - it is eye-catching, isn't it.

  3. Great detective work and a wonderful collection of photos with interesting stories. I love seeing these photographs of scenes in Alaska - it's a bit of an obsession of mine.

  4. Fascinating -- both your detective work and Merrill's photographs.

  5. Thanks.

    Greta - Nice to hear someone else has these "obsessions," although mine is more centred on the Klondike. I've read and re-read Tappan Adney's and Pierre Berton's books on the subject a number of times, but don't own any Klondike photos ... yet. One day, I hope to visit the place myself, perhaps even climb the Chilkoot!

  6. Brett, What a great resource you've created.
    My name is James Poulson I live in Sitka and am involved in a campaign (with family and friends) to purchase more than 950 of E.W, Merrill's glass plate negatives from the defunct Sheldon Jackson College, which closed its doors in 2007.
    Once we purchase it, we will donate the collection to Sitka National Historical, Park, which is already caring for the negatives along with its own Merrill negatives (some of which were used in your blog).
    We would be much obliged if you helped get the word out. Our website officially launched today and has more details: www.merrillproject.org.
    Thanks in advance and keep up the good work, James

    1. Hi James, Thanks for your kind comments and for posting this information about EW Merrill's glass plate negatives. What a great project your planned purchase of the collection will be, and I look forward to hearing about your progress with the preservation and making digital images available to the public.

  7. Hello Brett, Thought I'd send an update on our effort to purchase the Merrill collection. We did it. We raised the money and are in the process of donating the plates to Sitka National Historical Park. The park will be leveraging the donation to get funding to digitize them and make them public.
    A side note: I was visiting my wife's family in Hamilton, Massachusetts and went on a 10 minute drive to Danvers and found Merrill's home on Berry Street, right where he left it. (now an apartment)

    1. That's wonderful to hear, James, and I hope to see them online in due course. A wonderful resource - well done.
      How interesting to know that the house is still there. I don't suppose you got a photograph of the porch, did you?


Join my blog network
on Facebook