George Edward Anderson differed from many of the world's great documentary photographers in that he served for four years as a bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and spent a stretch as a missionary in England. But overall he shared the hallmark characteristics: toiling in obscurity, strained family life, unwavering vision and a poverty-inducing obsession for his subject and the act of photographing.
Photography came of age at the same time as Mormonism — and they moved west together. Anderson's mentor, Charles Roscoe Savage, settled in Utah a little ahead of the arrival of William Henry Jackson and the other Western survey photographers.
The 1870s, when Anderson began working, was an era when the railroad was still new in Utah. In his images, the presence of trains — in the background and foreground — is a reminder of the nature of Utah's separation from and connection to the outside world. As with the blues, it is this sort of occasionally broken isolation that can lead to the best kind of innovation and originality.
Along with compelling studio portraiture, his signature approach was to photograph people positioned in front of their homes or businesses. He managed to make a living this way, and he also left a remarkable historical record of life in Utah, what it looks like to settle a region, and what kind of stuff people owned.
Through the repetition of this theme and variation, these arrangements give way to a nuanced and animated view of Utah life: its commerce, its piety, its immigration, its stewardship and husbandry. He showed their grieving, a desert agriculture that strove to create abundance out of desolation, and the West that was, in the end, finally settled by the automobile.
Anderson was highly aware of his role in creating and preserving the historical record, and along with the ordinary, he had an eye for the oddness of details, such as the young man who made a home-fashioned harp out of a bicycle frame or the boys with snakes in his studio.
Seen with modern eyes, it's hard not to draw a parallel to Mike Disfarmer's portraits: the depth of the topography of his subjects' faces, and the ways in which individual lives are in dissonance with the small rural community they make up. The plates with damaged emulsion, like black clouds bearing down on the sitters, make them beautiful in a way that would have been foreign to Anderson but that add dramatically to their power for us.
Anderson died in 1928, largely unknown and leaving behind more than 15,000 glass plate negatives. Those that survived passed through a series of private collections before landing in a few repositories. The majority are at the L. Tom Perry Special Collections at the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University, where the collection can be seen online.
Rell G. Francis, The Utah Photographs of George Edward Anderson
Nelson B. Wadsworth, Set in Stone, Fixed in Glass: The Mormons, the West, and Their Photographers
Found in the Archives, a Picture Show miniseries running at the beginning of each month, features archival films and found images selected by researcher Rich Remsberg.