William Herman Rulofson, the man once dubbed “The P. T. Barnum of American Photography,” was born in New Brunswick, Canada, on September 27, 1826. The son of William Hermanes and Priscilla Howard Rulofson, when the senior Rulofson died in 1827, his widow and their children moved in with her father, Captain John Martin. After an early home-based education, Mr. Rulofson reportedly served a daguerreotype apprenticeship at age 16 from either James C. Melick in St. John, New Brunswick or Luther Holman Hale in Boston. Thereafter, he traveled to New York, then to England and France to receive further instruction and experience. In 1847, the 21-year-old returned to New Brunswick, where he opened a studio in Fredericton. He welcomed his first child the following year, but did not marry the child’s teenaged mother, Amelia Currie, until five months later.
In January of 1849, Mr. Rulofson headed alone for California, where after a brief career as a miner, he began selling what he advertised as “Daguerreotype Miniatures” at “moderate prices.” By 1850, he had brought his wife and son to Sonora, California, and with a fully equipped wagon, began making daguerreotypes of local miners. Partnering with John B. Cameron, the ‘Rulofson and Cameron’ team set up a portable studio on Main Street, which allowed them to escape a Sonora fire in October 1853. However, the duo was not so lucky the following month when another blaze destroyed their mobile gallery. By 1855, Mr. Cameron was playing only a limited role in the business, and within two years, Mr. Rulofson was sole proprietor, and renamed the company ‘Rulofson’s Art Gallery.’ His inventory initially consisted stereoscopes, but expanded to include ambrotypes, and he developed a method of printing onto cloth, leather and paper which he proclaimed to be “different from and superior to that of any competitor.”
However, once again, Mr. Rulofson was forced to rebound from a devastating fire, and by 1863, he leased his Sonora facility to Daniel Sewell, and relocated to San Francisco, where he opened the first of several ‘Bradley and Rulofson’ studios with Henry William Bradley at 429 Montgomery Street. Specializing in portraits and large-format panoramic views, Mr. Bradley handled business operations, which included a thriving publishing company, while Mr. Rulofson presided over portraiture, marketing, and promotion. Despite a tumultuous personal life which included a remarriage and the death of his daughter reportedly at the hands of her half-brother, Mr. Rulofson commanded the respect of the industry, and amassed a vast fortune as well as recognition at several prestigious exhibitions. The firm scored a tremendous financial coup when it obtained the publishing rights to Eadweard Muybridge’s stereo views, while making portraits of a veritable who’s who of notables who either lived in California or merely passing through. Their lavish studio spared no expense to ensure portrait quality, which included original props and paintings by artist Lafayette W. Seavey, and decorative objects imported from China. The always-busy Mr. Rulofson also served as president of the National Photographic Association and was an executive committee member of the Photographic Society of the Pacific.
Despite its international success, the Bradley and Rulofson studio was on the brink of bankruptcy by the mid-1870s, and financial mismanagement forced the partners to turn on each other. Amidst the professional chaos, Mr. Rulofson was overseeing a massive home remodeling project when he fell from a roof to his death on November 2, 1878. Several of W. H. Rulofson’s portraits are housed at the University of California at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, and two of his camera lenses are included in collections at San Francisco’s Society of California Pioneers.
1876 The British Journal of Photography, Vol. XXIII (London: Henry Greenwood), p. 477.
2017 Cabinet Card Photographers: Bradley and Rulofson (http://cabinetcardphotographers.blogspot.com).
2017 City of San Diego, 1873 (URL: http://www.dsloan.com/Auctions/A15/A15Web151-153.htm).
2017 The Compleat Eadweard Muybridge: Chronology 1830-1875 (URL: http://www.stephenherbert.co.uk/muychron01.htm).
1984 Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology, Vol. VI (Banning, CA: Malki Museum Press), pp. 6-18.
1874 The Photographer’s Friend, Vol. IV (Baltimore, MD: Richard Walzl), p. 126.
2000 Pioneer Photographers of the Far West: A Biographical Dictionary, 1840-1865 by Peter E. Palmquist and Thomas R. Kailbourn (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), pp. 465-468.
1875 Sketches of Leading and Representative Men of San Francisco (London: London and New York Publishing Company), pp. 801-803.
2017 Studio, Bradley and Rulofson (URL: http://broadway.cas.sc.edu/content/studio-bradley-and-rulofson).
2017 William H. Rulofson (URL: http://catalog.library.ca.gov/exlibris/aleph/a21_1/apache_media/JVSGV7TYDVQE43TIAGNCRKGRHSLM19.jpg).
2017 William Herman Rulofson: Pioneer Daguerreotypist and Photographic Educator (URL: http://ch.ucpress.edu/content/34/4/289).
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