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Portrait of the Goldberg Family, 1934. WHS Image ID 47344

Ada Bass, Wife of the Photographer, ca. 1890 WHI 47344

Edward A. Bass: Doctor and Amateur Photographer

Dr. Edward Alpheus Bass was a practicing physician in Montello when he purchased a Velox camera from the local newspaper office in 1892. The newspaper, the Montello Express, reported that Dr. Bass had "no experience in photography, but during the week has taken a number of most perfect pictures." More than 130 of his negatives, photographs, and digital images, circa 1885-1910, are preserved on glass negatives donated to the Society by his son and are the subject of this month's featured gallery.

The key innovations of Bass' Velox camera were portability and the elimination of the professional photographer. Although the Bass photographs comply with many conventions of the day in terms of subject matter and composition, there is a relaxed intimacy about them because of the relationship of the photographer to his subjects. That relationship either didn't exist with a professional photographer, or was strained by the cumbersome technology or the unfamiliar studio setting. A respectable woman would not let her hair down in front of a stranger in a studio, but Dr. Bass could photograph his wife's beautiful long hair in the privacy of their home. And his group photographs have a very natural quality despite being carefully posed.

The Bass collection as a whole also reflects historical trends and how they affected the small city of Montello and its citizens. The photographs are at once specific to that place and general. They are not journalistic representations of what might be commonly considered "historically important" events, but provide a clear view of times and places that have since proved important. Montello bicyclists were part of a nationwide cycling craze which led to the demand for better roads; the many displays of the American flag in the home and at gatherings of all sorts attest to the strong strain of patriotism through the 1890s.

The photographs also document the travels and activities of Dr. Bass himself. He was a railway surgeon for the Wisconsin Central Railway and thus entitled to free rail travel, so there are photographs from the Ashland and Bayfield and Wisconsin Dells areas. Family ties and medical meetings took him to Milwaukee, where he photographed City Hall as it neared completion. His family scenes are not the somber portraits typical of the time, but show people sitting or standing naturally.

Dr. Bass obviously had talent for composing photographs. In 1964 his photograph identified here as "Women and Young Girl Leaning on Fence" was included in the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition "The Photographer's Eye" as an example of the successful use of "the frame," that is, the selection of elements to include in (and exclude from) a photograph. Bass' images capture the scenic beauty of Marquette County lakes and rivers, as well as views throughout Wisconsin and provide a rare look at family, social and political events of the time through the eyes of one of the participants.

View the Gallery

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