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A man standing on a rolling log in the water near the northern Wisconsin town of Washburn, circa 1932 (WHI Image ID 86797).
A man standing on a rolling log in the water near Washburn, Wisconsin WHI 986797

Northwoods Photographer Allan Born

Allan Born (18921959) took photographs around northern Wisconsin for nearly half a century. He specialized in small-town life and the tourist economy but also captured much of the scenic beauty of northwoods lakes, streams, forests and wildlife. During the 1930s he also photographed local Ojibwe residents and tried his hand at aerial photography. The photographs were taken mostly with 3.5 x 5.5 and 5 x 7 inch black-and-white negative film. In 2001 his collection of more than 1,700 negatives and prints was given to the Wisconsin Historical Society. About a third of these are available in this gallery.

E.J. Born Jewelers (and Photography)

When Allan Born was a child, his father Elias purchased stock in the Eastman Kodak company from an Eastman representative traveling through Ashland, Wisconsin, where Elias operated the E.J. Born Jewelry store. The store soon began handling photographic equipment, and Allan grew up around cameras and film. When his father passed away in 1907, Allan's mother maintained the store, and he dropped out of high school to help her. He also helped support the family by working in the logging camps of northern Wisconsin, which took him far off the beaten track during the peak years of Wisconsin lumbering.

After serving in the Navy during World War I, Allan returned to the store, where he spent most of his life. In 1946 he married one of his employees, and he was at work in the store as usual when he succumbed to a heart attack on July 24, 1959. Over the decades, Born's interest in photography continually grew, and he expanded the Kodak photographic division of Born Jewelers. When he wasn't minding the store, he was likely to be in the woods or on the lakes of northern Wisconsin with his camera.

The Born Collection

The Coopoer cottage on Cable Lake, circa 1931
Cable, Wisconsin, circa 1931 WHI 88785

The 1712 prints and negatives in the collection represent the lifetime achievement of a serious amateur. About a third of them (627) are available online.

As a native of northern Wisconsin, Born was eager to document local life as it was actually lived and not only as a magnet for the burgeoning tourist trade. He photographed the main streets, businesses, homes and year-round residents of 21 towns in the north throughout the middle of the 20th century.

But he also could not ignore the economic driver that brought outside money into the depressed Northwoods economy, and took nearly 200 careful images of resorts. These show exterior architecture, interior furnishings and happy tourists at play. Some were used as postcards for tourists to send home.

Born also captured the scenic beauty and wild habitats of the north in other series of photographs. He kept separate files of negatives labeled "fish scenes," "deer scenes" and "bear scenes" as well as an album of selections called "Nature Lover's Paradise."

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