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From the Stacks 

July 31, 2009

The Fiske Is In

A fascinating aspect of archival work is the story that unfolds when you try and unravel the mysteries of uncatalogued items from the back of the vault. While evaluating a collection of oversized archival items in the Academy’s collection, I came across a pair of large prints of Yosemite photographs — a meandering river under an impressive dome, and a bearded gentleman, in front of an impressive Sequoia. Both photographs were uncatalogued but attributed to a “John Fiske” in little notes on their reverse side. The attributing notes were written in 1919 by the California School of Arts and Crafts, the original owner of the prints. The veracity of the notes was immediately in doubt: archives assistant Christina Fidler immediately recognized that the first photo, described in the note as “South Dome”, was in fact a photo of Yosemite’s North Dome (Yosemite doesn’t even contain a “South Dome”). The notes also named the bearded figure as early Yosemite Guardian Galen Clark, which if true would improve the value and importance of the photograph.

Fiske003_final

Is it South Dome or North Dome?

As the Academy had no other archival items relating to a John Fiske, I did a little research about the photographer before entering the prints into the catalog. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any source material about a photographer named John Fiske. However, there was a prominent early Yosemite photographer named George Fiske (b. 1835, d. 1918). In fact, George Fiske was the first year-round photographer-in-residence of Yosemite Valley, whose winter photographs are rightly prized for their beauty and enduring value (intuitive readers will take note of the surname-only signature on that linked photo sourced from the Bancroft Library’s collection, and its similarity to the signature on the Sequoia photo below…if I had noticed that earlier, I would have saved myself a bit of work!).

This Fiske was a fascinating figure: long before Ansel Adams, he made a living off his photographs of the Valley and the mountains beyond. He’d use mules to take his elaborate camera gear up long arduous trails, and if it was too rough for even his mules, he pulled his gear in a handcart that he nicknamed his “Cloud-chasing Chariot”.

Sadly, George Fiske’s influence as a photographer has waned due to two tragedies: the fiery destruction of his home and laboratory in 1904 that burnt three-quarters of his negatives and prints, and the 1943 fire that burned down Yosemite Valley’s Sawmill (his remaining negatives were stored in the attic). Despite this, Ansel Adams regarded George Fiske as one of his foremost influences.

It seemed likely that George Fiske was the actual photographer behind our two prints. I set about doing a little more sleuthing: without confirmation that George Fiske took these photographs it would be hard to overrule the evidence on the back of the prints for the catalog. The breakthrough moment came from reading Fiske’s heading under Pioneer Photographers of the Far West, available online via Google Books. I discovered that he was a stalwart friend of Galen Clark and that Clark utilized Fiske’s photographs in a number of his own books. Low and behold, three of Clark’s books are in the Academy’s own library collection, including Big Trees of California — a treatise about Sequoias. I hoped that the second print, with the Sequoia and a man who was possibly Galen Clark, would be in that book. I dug our copy out of the stacks.

Bingo! The exact photo was on pg. 87, a full page print. In fact, the book gave us much more detail about the photo than we originally had; not only does it confirm that the figure is in fact Galen Clark, it also explains that the tree in the photograph is the famous “Grizzly Giant” in the Mariposa Grove. Clark calls the tree “the acknowledged patriarch of the Mariposa Grove”, that “has a unique individuality of majestic grandeur all its own, different from any known Sequoia”. Clark claims that the Grizzly Giant is at least six thousand years old, and probably the oldest living thing on Earth (his enthusiasm was slightly misplaced — modern experts name the Grizzly Giant to be “only” 2,700 years old. Still, it remains the largest tree in Yosemite, and one of the five largest on Earth).

Fiske001_final

Galen Clark and the Grizzly Giant

There’s only one catch. Clark’s book only credits the photograph to “Fiske”, no first name or initial. So can we know for certain that the photo was taken by Clark’s friend George Fiske, and not a mysterious unknown named John? The only California connection to a John Fiske, and perhaps the source of the 1919 name-mixup, is a Fiske Peak in the Sierra Nevada range named for a philosopher and historian named John Fiske. Perhaps the person who wrote the notes only knew of this John Fiske, and never heard of George?

Final confirmation was back in Pioneer Photographers of the Far West. It states that George Fiske’s photographs “graced two of Clark’s books, The Big Trees of California (1907) and The Yosemite Valley (1910)”. With the print in hand matching the print in the book, and the back-up evidence of the matching handwritten signature in the Bancroft’s George Fiske collection, we know for certain that our two photographs are definitively by George Fiske, not a John.

Archiving can lead to a fun and fascinating tour of our pioneering past. In attempting to catalog a couple unheralded items in our collection, I’ve discovered and learned about a fascinating character who played an important role in chronicling California’s geologic grandeur and helped popularize Yosemite Valley, one of our most famous natural wonders. Today, George Fiske is buried right beside Galen Clark in Yosemite’s Pioneer Cemetery, a fitting resting place for one of Clark’s closest confidants and for Ansel Adams’ spiritual predecessor.

–Daniel Ransom, Academy Library Intern


Filed under: Archives,Photography — Intern @ 4:14 pm

10 Comments »

  1. I am a student assistant at the California State Parks, Photographic Archives and recently came across some photographs taken by George Fiske while cataloging images of Point Lobos. Like yours, some of the photographs I am cataloging have the name Fiske in the lower right hand corner. But on the back of the images I am working with is a stamp that reads, “Geo. Fiske, Photo. Yosemite Valley, Cal San Francisco Agency, Sanborn, Vail & Co. 57 Market Street” which provides even more evidence that George (not John) is indeed the photographer in your prints.

    Comment by Ron Cline — September 29, 2009 @ 9:23 am

  2. South Dome was an earlier name for Half Dome.

    Comment by Barbara Beroza — February 11, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

  3. Interesting Barbara! I did not know that. However the photo is definitively North Dome (fortunately, we were just able to restore the photos as they originally appeared on this post).

    Comment by Daniel Ransom — March 3, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

  4. I believe the first photo is of Half Dome,
    from a southern vantage point.
    Near where “LITTLE Yosemite Valley” campground is today.

    Comment by Ken Kagawa — November 23, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

  5. Ken Kagawa to the contrary this IS North Dome and a common image of the 19th and early 20th photographers. Half Dome was well known as the South Dome in that era. George Fiske IS the Fiske of YoSemite photographs!

    Comment by Paul P. Clark — December 16, 2010 @ 5:57 am

  6. Hello. I own an album by George Fiske containing quite a few originals. They are extraordinary. I could email some pictures to you if you would like. They are quite stunning. I believe that one of the photos by Mr. Fiske was credited to Ansel Adams recently.

    Comment by Viktoria Fox — April 14, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

  7. Would love to see pictures.just learned of him after visting yosemite last weekend.purchased the poster with the women in dresses on a cliff. Love his work,work.even in sephia.

    Comment by Kim — September 9, 2011 @ 9:43 pm

  8. Viktoria Fox mentioned that one of Fiske’s photos was credited to Ansel Adams. I would be very interested in seeing that photograph. I am researching other possible photos mis-credited to Adams as well ….. photographic negatives made by Arthur C. Pillsbury but printed by Ansel Adams (who, coincidently, worked in Pillsbury’s studio up to the very day THAT studio ALSO burned down – destroying most of Pillsbury’s work as well.

    Comment by C. Anjelica Kieltyka — April 22, 2012 @ 6:39 am

  9. I have an photo album of a group of women touring/camping in Yosemite circa 1890 with a photographer and I am trying to ID the womens group and the photographer. My be the Sweet Sisters along with several otherwomen and could be Geprge Fiske photo. 34 5″ X 3 1/2″ prints, album missing front cover. I would like to know where to send/email photos for ID. Sincerely, Rocky Wiley 707 742-4067

    Comment by Rocky Wiley — September 6, 2012 @ 11:23 am

  10. I lovе what you guyѕ are usually up tοo.
    Such cleνer work and reporting! Κеeρ up the great works guys Ι’ve added you guys to our blogroll.

    Comment by Anonymous — November 28, 2012 @ 10:34 am

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