A Little R & R – Encounters with Readers and Research

Portrait of J. F. Coonley, ca. 1860 by unidenfied photographer; image courtesy of Larry J. West, via P. J. Vanderbeck-Thomas; Original at National Portrait Gallery gift of Larry J. West.

Portrait of J. F. Coonley, carte de visit made by an unidentified photographer, ca. 1870; image courtesy of Larry J. West, via P. J. Vanderbeck-Thomas; original at National Portrait Gallery, gift of Larry J. West.

I have had the good fortune to connect several times with a deceased photographer’s family members — by that I mean a member or members of the families, often direct descendants, of photographers who worked in Georgia as visitors or residents. We sometimes stay in touch off and on for years, and I believe it is a helpful connection for both of us.

Often, in the last two years, the contact is made via this blog – another good reason I continue to write and post here. I haven’t done too much of either research, or writing and posting this past summer, and I actually gave myself some time off, some R & R (for good behavior, I like to think!).

This week I want to share some information on a well-known nineteenth century photographer, Jacob Frank Coonley, provided me by the granddaughter of Alva Davis Coonley Vanderbeck (Alva was “Jay” F. Coonley’s granddaughter).  She has shared new-to-me portraits of J. F. Coonley, and two of his Savannah carte-de-visite backmarks. As icing on the cake, several fine Coonley stereoviews and their back marks were made available to me by a reader-collector, and I have used a few of those here.

Coonley was of Dutch descent, and he was born in New York on January 15, 1830. He died in the Bronx, New York, on December 2, 1915, at daughter Ada Coonley-Davis’s home. This exact date of death was new information to me.  Also new for me, and for his descendant, is that J. F. Coonley’s birth date was not exactly what either of us had recorded, or what has been previously published, but the new information comes directly from his death certificate, a copy of which the descendant now holds. 

According to the death certificate, as well as an article on his death published in the December 3, 1915 issue of  a New York newspaper, The Evening World (he was 85 years old, matching that 1830 birth), Coonley attempted suicide. The coroner recorded that he “died of shock,” not of his wounds from the two shots he fired at himself, missing his heart, but grazing his temple. 

I have found more than a few other news articles on photographers who took their own lives. Some of them were ill and saw no point to go on living. Perhaps this was the case with J. F. Coonley. The news article mentions that he had been an “invalid for more than twenty years,” but that could not be right!

Coonley was actively traveling back and forth to the Bahamas, where he first made photographs in 1878-79 (and where he ran a studio from about 1884 to 1904), as well as to Cuba, at least through 1908, when he was finally noted as “retired” on passenger lists. That was only seven years before his death.

Cambridge University Library holds a large collection of Coonley’s photographs made in the Bahamas, presented to them by Sir William Robinson, governor of the Bahamas, 1874-1880.

My interest in J. F. Coonley is his work as a photographer in the South, and particularly in Savannah, Georgia, where he lived and worked, I believe from late 1867 or, more probably, from early 1868, through May 1869.

Prior to setting up a photo studio in Savannah, he had already had an eventful career of a dozen years, and there is much written about that. A working artist, he first associated with George N. Barnard (1819 – 1902) in 1856, as a photo colorist, and Barnard taught him photography. Coonley then tried photography on his own, but by 1858, he was working through Barnard for the Edward Anthony firm. In 1860 and 1861 he was working for Matthew Brady helping Barnard to re-photograph Brady’s images to the carte-de-visite format, and at the start of the war he “went into the field” for Anthony & Company to photograph the new officers of the army, and other scenes.

Illustration for Coonley's article

Illustration showing equipment being carried away from the approaching enemy to Coonley’s “photo car”; from his article “Photographic Reminiscences of the Late War” in Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin, v. 13, Sept. 1882, p. 311-312

I will not revisit all the details of his career, but there are at least two articles written by Coonley on his early and later career. One of the two is available online via Google books. Here are the citations: “Photographic Reminiscences of the Late War” in Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin, v. 13, Sept. 1882, p. 311-312 (pt.2), and “Pages From a Veteran’s Note-Book, Some Account of the Career of Mr. J. F. Coonley,” in Wilson’s Photographic Magazine, v. 44, March 1907, p. 105-108.

In 1864, Coonley was contracted by the Quartermaster-General to photograph the operations along the railroads now in use by the Union Army. This included his travel through Georgia and Tennessee, and in Spring 1865, he took significant photos in Charleston, South Carolina, and at Fort Sumter.

After the war, as of 1866, and into 1874, J. F. Coonley worked as a photographer living a portion of the year in South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee (in that order). But in his own written account, it appears he ignored his photographic work in the South, describing his work there associated with the war years only.

In 1866-1867, before moving down the coast to Savannah, J. F. Coonley worked in Charleston, South Carolina as the manager of Quinby & Co., photographers. Charles J. Quinby (1832-1920) had reopened his Charleston business,  quite prosperous before the war. Quinby partnered with Coonley’s old friend George N. Barnard in 1868, and Coonley may have worked briefly for the two of them. [See Harvey S. Teal’s Partners with the Sun: South Carolina Photographers, 1840-1940 (U. of SC Press, 2001) p.130 and 134 for more on the relationship of Coonley, Quinby, and Barnard].

As an aside: C. J. Quinby worked in Savannah, Georgia, for Jeffers & Co., in the summer of 1858, and in 1859 in Augusta, Georgia, he worked under, or set up others to work under, the Quinby & Co. name.

Coonley Ships at Wharf Savannah 600

Stereoview and detail; J. F. Coonley, ca. 1868; courtesy Keith B.C. Brady collection

J. F. Coonley, stereoview and detail, ships in Savannah harbor, ca. 1868; courtesy Keith B.C. Brady collection

There is one account of  “local scenery” stereoviews made in the Savannah area by “Coonley & Wolfersberger.” J. F. Coonley and W. A. Wolfersberger (b. ca. 1828) were partners in Philadelphia for a very short time in 1862. Possibly they, or Coonley, came south to make photographs and it is possible that Coonley alone later used the backmark. It is unlikely Wolfersberger himself ever worked in Savannah, or in Georgia. I have seen only one Philadelphia view they made, and their views are considered rare. Savannah views with their mark are cited by T. K. Treadwell and William C. Darrah in their Stereographers of the World, v. II – U.S. (National Stereoscopic Association, 1994), but I personally have not seen one.

In addition to his work in Charleston through 1867, I do not believe Coonley was a resident photographer in Savannah before early 1868, for two other reasons. First, he appears in the published Consignees listings for various ships arriving in Savannah from New York only in 1868 and 1869, meaning that he was getting photographic supplies for only those two years.

Second, all his Savannah carte-de-visite and stereographic photographs are marked with his studio location on Broughton Street, opposite the Marshall House.

Back mark of a stereo by J. F. Coonley, ca. 1868

Back mark of a stereoview made by J. F. Coonley, ca. 1868; courtesy Keith B. C. Brady collection

Coonley’s stereo back marks state that he was “J.F. Coonley, Dealer in Chromos, Engravings, and Paintings,” and he made frames and published stereoscopic views. In that particular location, opposite the Marshall House, from late 1866 through late 1867, photographer J. W. Perkins (ca. 1828 – 1898) was located.

Perkins was a well-known Augusta photographer who had worked, off and on, with Isaac Tucker (ca. 1825 – ca. 1890) since the early 1850s. By 1866 he was doing business, without a partner, in Savannah as well as in Augusta. 

Under “New Photograph Gallery” in the Savannah Daily News and Herald (Dec. 20, 1866, p.3, c.1), we find that Perkins  

has just opened a new and elegant establishment on Broughton street, opposite the Marshall House. The house was built expressly for a daguerrean and photograph establishment, by Mr. Alfred Haywood [for Perkins], and has the best sky-light to be found south of Philadelphia.

Very soon J. W.Perkins was advertising his business as Perkins’ Photograph and Art Gallery, and as Perkins’ Art Gallery, as well as advertising his Savannah and Augusta galleries together as Perkins’ Galleries. He employed an artist, a business manager, and a bookkeeper, and sold stereoscopes and views, oil prints, engravings, and chromo lithographs. He later advertised that he could re-gilt old frames and restore old pictures.

By late 1867, Perkins had decided to work only out of Augusta, and he was ready to hand over, or sell, the Savannah gallery to someone. I believe that person was photographer J. F. Coonley. Coonley began accepting supplies for his business by February 1868, and he continued to receive them into April 1869.  It is probable that the two photographers, Perkins and Coonley, knew one another, and that Coonley bought out Perkins’ art stock, but I have not yet found a record of sale.

Reverse of carte-de-visite made by J. F. Coonley with an early Savannah back mark, ca. 1867-68; collection of

Reverse of carte-de-visite made by J. F. Coonley with an early Savannah back mark, ca. 1867-68; courtesy P. J. Vanderbeck-Thomas

Reverse of carte-de-visite made by J. F. Coonley using his Savannah back mark, c1868-69; collection of

Detail of reverse of carte-de-visite made by J. F. Coonley using his Savannah back mark, c1868-69; courtesy P. J. Vanderbeck-Thomas

In January 1869, Savannah newspapers noted that artist Mr. [Alfred J.] Gustin (ca. 1840 – ca. 1889), was showing his work at “Mr. Coonley’s Photographic and Picture Gallery, on Broughton street.” By that spring it seems the art gallery was not working out for Coonley. On May 20, 1869, the Savannah Morning News (p. 3 c.3) ran an article regarding the

Auction Sale of Fine Paintings, Chromos, Steel Engravings, &c. We would call attention of our citizens to the sale of the fine collection of Mr. J. F. Coonley, at the Savannah Art Gallery, on Broughton street, opposite the Marshall House …….until the stock is closed out. — While we regret that Mr. Coonley has found it necessary to dispose of his attractive pictures, we hope our citizens will not allow any of them to leave Savannah.

J. F.  Coonley left Savannah by the end of May. On June 7, 1869, J.N. Wilson (1827-1897), a Savannah photographer working at the corner of Broughton and Whitaker streets since fall 1865, began advertising that he had

purchased the Negatives taken at Coonely’s Photograph Gallery, and persons desiring copies can obtain them from me.

After leaving Savannah, J. F. Coonley moved back to New York City, where he is listed on the 1870 census. Soon he was back in the South, this time in Memphis, Tennessee. He worked there with photographer Y. [Yearly] Day (b. 1821) in 1872 and 1873, and by 1874, he was working on his own in that city.

Back mark of a J. F. Coonley Memphis carte-de-visite; collection of E. Lee Eltzroth

Back mark of a J. F. Coonley Memphis marked carte-de-visite; collection of E. Lee Eltzroth

Coonley left Memphis, probably around 1876. By the late 1870s he began his part-of-the-year travels to the Bahamas and Cuba, and in the 1880s worked in New York for photographer J. M. Mora.

Although his frequent trips to the Caribbean lasted into the early twentieth century, he remained active in New York and national photographic organizations, and in the early 1880s, was president of the Association of Operative Photographers of New York.

J. F. Coonley surrounded by his family, ca. 1910-1911. His daughter Ada Bell Coonley-Davis is on the right, on the left are his two grandchildren - the girl is Alva Davis (married name Vanderbeck); photo possibly taken by Elwood Charles Davis; from the Coonley family collection held by P.J. Vanderbeck-Thomas.

J. F. Coonley surrounded by his family, ca. 1910-1911. His daughter Ada Bell Coonley-Davis is on the right, and on the left are his two grandchildren, Alva Davis (married name Vanderbeck) and Warren Davis; photo possibly taken by Elwood Charles Davis; from the Coonley family collection held by P.J. Vanderbeck-Thomas.

Articles and letters written on photographic technique by J. F. Coonley and available via Google books are: “Is Photography a Fine Art?” a letter from J. F. Coonley, in The Photographic Times, Dec. 1880, v. 10, p. 273; “Quality of Photographic Light Necessary for Best Results,” in Journal for Amateur Photographers, 1882, v. 26, p. 663; and “A Defense of Collodion,” in The Photographic Times and American Photographer, Feb. 1883, v. 13, p. 60-62.

For more on Civil War photography, see Bob Zeller’s The Blue and Gray in Black and White: A History of Civil War Photography (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005), and Jeff L. Rosenheim’s Photography and The American Civil War (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015). 

© E. Lee Eltzroth and Hunting & Gathering, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without  written permission from this blog’s author is prohibited. The piece can be re-blogged, and excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to E. Lee Eltzroth and Hunting & Gathering, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


  1. Peggy Jo Thomas · · Reply

    Beautifully done, Lee. Thank you so much for bringing the talented life of my great, great grandfather to light. -Peggy Jo Vanderbeck-Thomas

    1. You are quite welcome. Thank you so much for sharing the information and images. Together we can begin to make accounts on J F Coonley more accurate.

  2. To confirm your supposition that Coonley was working in Savannah as early as late 1867, I have a photograph (discolored and streaked) of an distant ancestor, Henry Lewis Foy, (who died 20 December 1867, age 35) wearing his Confederate uniform, complete with rifle and sword. In the margin below the image, “J.F. Coonley.” appears at the lower left and “Savannah.” at the lower right. Barely visible on the back side is “Additional copies furnished from this negative if desired.” The Foys lived in Effingham County, which adjoins Chatham, and had professional photos and deguerrotypes made in Savannah of many family members. The only two others that bear the photographer’s identity were made by a J.S. Wilson Photographer on the South East corner of Broughton & Whitaker Streets. I would be happy to send the Coonley photo to you–plus any others if you’d like–since I have already scanned it for my genealogical research and have no need of the original.- Bonnie Lynn Bailey

    1. Thanks so much for contacting me and for reading the post! I will contact you via email and we can “talk” – great to have more conformation re Coonley’s dates in Savannah.

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