Congressional photographic portraits serve an important function—recording an image of a Member for history. Like this ca. 1921 portrait of Representative William Atkeson, they can also surprise the viewer with their beauty. Harris & Ewing, a Washington, D.C., photography studio, produced luminous congressional photographs that are worth a closer look.
In 1904, Senator George Hoar died, and an exasperated San Francisco newspaper editor couldn’t find a single photograph of Hoar to print with the obituary. He told his ace photographer George Harris that “if he had any sense he would go to Washington, open a studio and photograph all the famous people there.” Inspired, Harris teamed up with Martha Ewing, a photo colorist and receptionist at the paper.
The partners resolved to leave California and create a new photo studio, but wondered if Washington was truly the best location. To decide, they separately toured several cities, evaluating economics and opportunities, and met up in the capital. Over dinner, Harris and Ewing each wrote the name of their preferred city on a slip of paper—and both wrote Washington. The city, and its people, became an essential ingredient in their success.
Their company, Harris & Ewing, opened the next year in Washington, with a photo studio and four employees. The business grew quickly as clients learned of the company’s “elegant and finely finished” photographs. The Harris & Ewing logo, printed or embossed in the lower left corner, meant trusted, high-quality photographic portraiture.
By 1939, the company employed 100 staff members, and had created 5 million photos. Harris & Ewing captured Members of Congress, Presidents, and actors, as well as buildings and important events, always with an emphasis on politics. (In fact, Harris was shooting a portrait of William Howard Taft when the phone rang, and Taft learned that Republicans had nominated him for the presidency. His curling smile, captured on a glass-plate negative, was one of the earliest candid photos.) Harris & Ewing’s cameras were outfitted with the finest imported lenses to capture every detail. Though the studio employed multiple photographers, a singular company style emerged.
Harris & Ewing photographers created tightly framed portraits with a shallow focus and a painterly attention to light and texture. In one portrait (above right), taken around 1915, Representative Charles Caldwell’s face fills the frame. His lined skin seems to indicate his hard work as a lawyer and New York Congressman. Much of the photograph is out of focus: Only the area between Caldwell’s nose and cheeks is clear, a photographic technique called shallow depth of field. Another portrait draws the viewer’s eye to the texture of clothing. Illinois Representative Carl Chindblom, photographed in 1923 (right), sports a soft, richly dark coat and hat. The inescapable luxuriousness of his attire, in sharp photographic focus, denotes wealth, status, and power.
Light catches the left side of Representative Atkeson’s face in another Harris & Ewing image (top left). His white hair gleams, and each strand of his beard is visible with incredible detail. On the other hand, Representative Alice Mary Robertson’s portrait (left) features a much softer focus, a trick used by photographers to minimize flaws in the days before digital editing software. With lighting similar to that of Atkeson’s portrait, Robertson appears ethereal. Contrasting with the dark background, her face glows gently. At Harris & Ewing’s 1313 F Street NW headquarters, called “America’s Studio Beautiful,” the company maintained four studios. The rooms had sophisticated lighting, designed to evoke natural sunlight and produce the best images.
Using depth of field, textures, and lighting to highlight the best qualities of their subjects, Harris & Ewing thrived and became the most successful studio in the country, taking more than 10,000 portraits per year. But as the 20th century progressed, the public opted for candid shots over formal studio portraits. The studio closed in 1977. As “photographers of the powerful, the rich and the eminent for 72 years,” the Washington Post wrote, Harris & Ewing “had captured them all in dignified poses worthy of their stature.”
Sources: Kathleen Collins, Washingtoniana Photographs: Collections in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress (Library of Congress, 1989); Washington Post, February 5, 1950, February 2, 1977, and October 15, 2006; Washington Business Journal, November 13, 2000.Follow @USHouseHistory