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Wooley book is a study of Adirondack photography

December 5, 2018
By JUSTIN A. LEVINE - Outdoors Writer ( , Lake Placid News

A new book of historic photographs offers much more than just a glimpse into the post-Gilded Age-era Adirondacks as it seeks to highlight the importance of one particular "town photographer."

Jesse S. Wooley was a photographer and shop owner based in Ballston Spa. However, with his proximity to the newly established Adirondack Park, Wooley became one of the premier photographers in New York state.

And even though there are about 80 pages of Wooley's historic photographs, editors Richard Timberlake and Philip Terrie - as well as several contributors - provide context and history that make this far more than a mere photographic coffee table book.

Article Photos

J.S. Wooley, Adirondack Photographer

In the forward to the book, Robert Bogdan explains the important role of town photographers before and even during the advent of easy-to-use cameras.

"Professional town photographers were commercial picture takers who had studios in minor population centers across the United State and focused their photography business on serving clients in their immediate vicinity," Bogdan writes. "Their work, if celebrated at all, is noted only by amateur historians working in the specific regions where the photographers worked.

"These photographers' legacy is a rich and detailed visual record of aspects of town and rural life as well as of the surrounding landscape. They lived in the places they shot, so they knew the nooks and crannies of the geographical and social landscape and had an intimate knowledge of the people they photographed."

In the first third of the book, the editors and others provide a series of essays about Wooley's life, as well as the advent and importance of classic landscape photography. Wooley was not only a photographer, but also embraced new technologies such as Kodak cameras and panoramic photos that could include large groups of people.

While Wooley's main business was as a town photographer in Ballston Spa, where he produced postcards, prints and portraits, he was also a shrewd businessman. His shop was the sole dealer of Kodak cameras in town, and he eventually branched out to travel photography. This change also led to his development of numerous slideshows which were quite popular.

"By the time Jesse Wooley started advertising his illustrated lectures, this medium was widespread across the United States, and thousands upon thousands of Americans attended lectures in churches and meeting halls," Terrie writes. "Before it was replaced by the movies, the magic-slide lecture, combining education and aesthetic pleasure, was one of the most popular forms of indoor entertainment in the country."

Wooley traveled not only to the Adirondacks, but also Europe, the American West and the east coast of Florida.

But the Capital Region and the Adirondacks were Wooley's bread and butter. The book's photo pages largely focus on Wooley's work in the Lake George region, where he was the staff photographer for Silver Bay, a Christian youth and missionary conference and training center that still exists today.

Flipping through the photographs, many of the posed photos will seem familiar. That sepia-toned expanse of wealthy people in white frolicking along the lake shore is an all too familiar photo for fans of Adirondack history. But the editors' wide selection also offers glimpses of what a town photographer did, including scenes such as the messy, crowded start of a swim race on Lake George and of a couple sitting on a swing while the famous Sagamore steamer sits at a nearby dock.

Wooley's photographs of the Adirondacks can only be described as iconic. While many may not have heard of his work previously, there is a familiarity to it that fans of the Adirondacks will know well.

The mix of historical context and page after page of early 1900s Adirondack life offers a brilliant concoction that makes this coffee table-esque book so much more than just a living room accessory.



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