Gutekunst Galleries — America's Most Famous Civil War Era Photographer

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Nestled between the modern-day Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Federal Reserve Bank lies a parking lot at 712 Arch Street Philadelphia, PA. Unbeknownst to most, the small acreage holds far more history than initially meets the eye. One hundred and fifty-five years prior, this space housed the studio of one of the most prolific and successful photographers of the American Civil War Era.

Frederick Gutekunst was born around 1831 to 1834 in Germany, like his father, who made a modest living as a carpenter. The pair traveled abroad and found themselves in Philadelphia in 1837 where they then remained. Gutekunst and his family lived in a block in Philadelphia where North American Street and Germantown Avenue meet. The neighborhood consisted of primarily German immigrants who could afford to live in the location. The younger Gutekunst spent the majority of these early years indentured to Prothonotary Joseph Simon Cohen at the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, as his father pushed for the boy to become a lawyer. However, disinterested in law, at the age of eighteen he began to cultivate a deep interest in the practice of daguerreotype, an early methodology for processing photography.

Between part-time jobs and frequently visiting notable photographer and writer, Marcus Aurelius Root’s galleries, Gutekunst started to further his own passion in the field. In time, he began to slowly gather parts for a camera of his own. After having acquired a lens and battery, his father helped build a frame to house Frederick’s collected parts, effectively jumpstarting his son’s career in photography.

Around this time, Frederick’s skill and expertise started to attract attention, some of which came from his brother Louis Gutekunst, who noticed his sibling’s talent and appetite for the medium. Working as a barber, Louis had a steady income and desired to help his younger brother with his goals. At some point, Frederick expressed interest in a storefront on Arch St. Understanding what this could mean for the aspiring photographer, in 1859 Louis rented the establishment, immediately. Frederick Gutekunst used this building throughout the entirety of his photography career. At this location, he hosted his collection of artworks, staged portraits, and met with those who wanted to buy from him.

Shortly thereafter, the nation found itself plunged into crisis as sides formed and brother fought brother. The American Civil War began in 1861 and altered the careers and lifestyles of the populace in a myriad of ways. As for Gutekunst, the effect was no different. In 1863, Philadelphia felt threatened by the destructive nature of the Gettysburg invasion and found itself perpetually closer to bitter conflict. Soldiers became much more prominent in the city as Philadelphia raised troops and tended to those in service. These soldiers soon found their way to Gutekunst studio to have their portraits made as it was the custom to have ones photo taken in military uniform, both as record and for relatives. Being talented in his work, word traveled about Gutekunst Studios on 712 Arch St., and soon enough, an array of military brass found its way to the now bustling studio.

Out of all of his work, the image that initially set Gutekunst apart from his contemporaries and brought about mass military brass interest was his portrait of Ulysses S. Grant. In an interview with The Photographic Times & American Photographer, Gutekunst stated, “I’m told the picture is the best taken of Grant; it is the model for the statue of him in Galena, and General Sherman sent me a letter in which he asserts his belief that it is the most characteristic of the great General.”

This success brought an immediate flow of income as well as a now seemingly endless supply of work. Gutekunst needed a larger space and workforce. The answer came in hiring his brother Louis to develop prints and meet with business partners, Gutekunst also hired several new staff members to take care of miscellaneous tasks as he purchased the remaining rooms in his now bustling studio. Gutekunst now occupied the entirety of the building and decorated it with all manners of apparel to delight customers and heighten the grandeur of his artwork. Located in the reception room, a large cylinder that looked similar to a music box filled the room with music to entertain and occupy eager customers.

As war gradually came to an end and a scarred nation began to heal itself, Gutekunst continued to thrive in his domain. He went on to photograph the Pennsylvania Railroads in 1870. He captured a gorgeous panorama view of the 1876 Centennial Exposition, a feat that was incredibly difficult to accomplish. Gutekunst also photographed many famed historic figures, such as: Lucretius Mott, William Lloyd Garrison, Caroline Still Anderson, Abraham Lincoln, and Grover Cleveland, to name a few. Copies of Gutekunst’s work often found residence in his studio for visitors and patrons to view.

Success led to upscaling in the studio and the need for an additional branch with trusted friend and advisor William Braucher as manager. Over time Gutekunst incorporated his business and gave stock to the older employees as compensation for their efforts. Frederick Gutekunst continued to work until his death in 1917, but not before becoming declared the Dean of American Photographers by the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph and one of the most accomplished men in the field during the era. While the Gutekunst Studios may no longer be standing, the artwork and story of the immigrant family who found incredible success and furthered the field of photography continues to inspire those inside and outside the field today.





712 Arch St. Philadelphia, PA 19106

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