Unmasking photographer George Collins Cox

 

A black and white photograph of a balding, bearded man wearing a suit jacket and tie, looking to his right away from the camera.

"See that cabinet of Cox photographs? It's yours to work."

When I started my internship here at the museum, I was tasked with tackling the collection of the photographer George Collins Cox (1851–1903), which I now know contains almost 2,000 photographs. The Cox collection is very exciting to me, not only because of its significance to the history of photography, but because of its massive potential for further research. The Cox collection, as far as we know, has not been researched or written about for over 50 years, since Marchal Landgren, an advocate for Cox, helped to bring the collection to the Smithsonian in 1963. While there is so much to be said, three stories begin to characterize Cox's life and work.

A black and white portrait of a man in a beard with a jacket and tie looking towards the camera, but slightly below so he appears to be thinking.

Cox's subjects and friends

In a letter from editor Richard Watson Gilder to famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Cox was introduced as "a photographer made (by God) especially for artists." Saint-Gaudens certainly believed it, as he employed Cox to photograph his subjects and frequently used Cox's photos as reference for his busts. Saint-Gaudens introduced Cox to some of the most notable people of his day, including poet Walt Whitman, philanthropist Peter Cooper, General William Tecumseh Sherman, and author William Dean Howells. Cox spent his early years, from about 1870 to 1883, in Newark, New Jersey, where he worked with the photographers DeCamp and Crane before starting his own studio, and where he also met Gilder and Saint-Gaudens. Cox cultivated a long-lasting relationship with both men, and although he had an asset in his two notable fans, it was Cox's skills as a photographer that ultimately won him so many customers and admirers. The famous photographer F. Holland Day sat for Cox in New York in 1890 and admired Cox's work enough to include it in an exhibit dedicated to "Leaders in the Newer Photographic Methods," alongside other pioneering photographers like Gertrude Käsebier and Edward Steichen.

 

A portrait of a man with a long white beard who looks straight into the camera while seated at an angle.

Cox's method

Bishop William Taylor, an American Methodist missionary who made a number of trips to Africa, was one of the many significant Americans who sat for Cox. The bishop for a time did not understand why Cox would not pose him for the photo session, but rather engaged him in a lively conversation. Taylor told Cox the story of a young man who came to see the bishop off on his trip back to America:

"Good-by[e], dear Bishop," the man blubbered; "I shall probably never see you again."
"No," said the Bishop, "you may be dead when I get back."

It was at this unguarded moment when Cox chose to capture his image. This was Cox's intention all along, though Taylor did not know this at first.

Cox did not pose or direct his subjects, but instead attempted to make them forget that they were having their portrait made in the first place. According to journalist Ida Tarbell, Cox believed that "all men purposely or unwittingly wear a mask, and that unless this mask can be torn away . . . no characteristic picture is possible." This was Cox's ultimate goal in his pursuit of the photographic art—he wished to capture the essence of the person sitting before him. This anecdote about Bishop Taylor is certainly not the only account of Cox's successes using his method. Eleonora Duse, the Italian stage actress, when reacting to Cox's famous photograph of Whitman, exclaimed: "But it is his soul! How can one photograph a soul?"

 

An old photograph of a woman. She wears a dress with voluminous sleeves and sits against a chair, her head tilted and looking away from the camera

Cox's art and isolation

Ida M. Tarbell, later known as the "muckraking" journalist responsible for The History of the Standard Oil Company, wrote an article about Cox for McClure's magazine in May 1897. To date, it is the only known writing about Cox before his death, and although it was edited to half the original length before publication, is one of the best sources about Cox's life and his method of photography. Tarbell's article sheds light on Cox's situation, in that he was not, as long as his New York studio was open, a conventional commercial photographer. Cox made his living by charging his sitters $20 for a sitting that produced six prints, and $2 for each subsequent print. Cox never advertised his work and, with the exception of two prints from his famous Whitman session that were sold for the benefit of the poet (then in poor health), he never sold any prints of his work to the public. Cox was an artist first and foremost.

Tarbell wrote: "Conscious that what he was striving to attain would be understood by only a few men, he has worked for them alone, seeking their criticisms and suggestions and observing closely the effect on them of what he had done." This was true to a fault. After Tarbell's modest article was published, Cox closed his New York studio and retreated to his home in South Orange, New Jersey, because he feared "the notoriety and consequent embarrassment" of being more widely recognized. It was only a few years later in 1903 that Cox died, and his work sank into obscurity.

George Collins Cox was widely unknown for many years, even to those in the photographic community, until he found an admirer in Marchal Landgren (1907–1983), a historian and author who was heavily involved throughout his life in the art world of New York and Washington, D.C. It was Landgren who organized the only exhibition of Cox's work at the Museum of the City of New York in 1939, and who located Cox's massive private collection of prints in the care of Cox's son, Robert. After locating and thoroughly investigating Robert's collection, Landgren negotiated the sale of the Cox collection to the Smithsonian in 1963, published an article on Cox in Walt Whitman Review that same year, and planned to author a monograph of Cox, which was incomplete at the time of his death in 1983.

The Cox collection is an underappreciated and little-known treasure at the Smithsonian. Within the 1,927 prints in the collection, there are 146 identified personalities, but there remain many sitters yet to be identified. Hopefully, with this summer's work, George Collins Cox will become more visible and entice others to research him. Cox's contributions to preserving the visages of the Gilded Age are likely to further illuminate this momentous era in American history.

Patrick Jackson is a history student at Washington College and was an intern in the Photographic History Collection in the summer of 2017.