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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Pirie MacDonald

Dates:  1867, 27 January - 1942, 22 April
Born:  US, IL, Chicago
Died:  US, NY, New York
Active:  US

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Pirie MacDonald
(Courtesy of Christian Peterson)

Ian Pirie MacDonald was born on January 27, 1867, nine days after his mother arrived from Scotland to join her husband in Chicago. He left school at the age of eleven and served a seven-year apprenticeship in the Forshew photography studio in Hudson, New York. In 1899, he opened his own business in Albany, where he specialized in portraits of women. The very next year, however, he moved his studio down to New York, where he established himself on Fifth Avenue and became known as the "Photographer of Men."
Most of MacDonald’s portraits are classically lit headshots showing the subjects in dignified repose. He kept a reproduction of a Rembrandt painting in his studio’s anteroom as inspiration, contributed a lead article to the January 1902 issue of the Photographic Times on old master painters such as Michelangelo and Raphael, and claimed that he drew "from life" two nights a week. He worked with 8-x-10 and 11-x-14-inch cameras, in order to produce stunning contact prints for his clients. These included leading men from all walks of professional life, such as the manufacturer Henry Ford, President Theodore Roosevelt, and the artist Joseph Pennell. The year of his death, still working at age seventy-five, MacDonald claimed to have photographed 70,000 individuals.
He was active in many photographic organizations, including the Photographers’ Association of America, in which he became a life member and honorary master photographer. MacDonald was an original trustee of the Winona School of Photography (Indiana) in 1921, and he served as the first president of the Professional Photographers’ Society of New York. His portraits were frequently exhibited at the national and regional conventions conducted by professional photographers.
He received a gold medal at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis and other awards at shows in Amsterdam, Belfast, Birmingham, Brussels, Frankfurt, Indianapolis, London, Omaha, Paris, and Philadelphia. Despite being primarily a professional photographer, MacDonald made inroads into pictorial circles. In 1899, for instance, he served on the jury for the photographic salon presented by New York’s American Institute. His soft-focus portrait of the French author Richard Le Gallienne appeared as a photogravure in the important artistic periodical Camera Notes, in February 1903. About this time, he began showing regularly at the annual exhibitions of England’s Royal Photographic Society, which eventually conferred him with an honorary fellowship (Hon. FRPS). In 1908, he presented a one-person exhibition of his portraits at the Camera Club of New York, where he later became a trustee, frequently lecturer, and revered member.
Other pictorial venues also welcomed him after World War I. Salon juries that accepted his prints included those in Buffalo, London, and Toronto. His pictures were reproduced almost continuously in Photograms of the Year between 1902 and 1941. Combining his interests, he once spoke to the Pictorial Photographers of America on "The Pictorial Side of Professional Photography." In 1933, he chaired the jury for the fifth Chicago photographic salon that was hung at the Century of Progress Exposition. And, a few years later, he served as the first president for New York’s Oval Table Society, an organization that included such major pictorialists as Adolf Fassbender and D. J. Ruzicka.
MacDonald, famously, allowed only one hour for his portrait sittings. Outside of the studio, he was more generous with his time, being active in such civic organizations as the Boy Scouts of America and the Rotary Club. He could lapse into a Scottish accent when he traveled back to his parents’ homeland, which he did every few years beginning around 1910.
The American Annual of Photography published a well-illustrated article on MacDonald in 1942. Later that year, on April 22, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in New York’s Doctors Hospital. 
Christian A. Peterson Pictorial Photography at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Christian A. Peterson: Privately printed, 2012) 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of Christian Peterson and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 1 June 2013. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
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Further research

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Pirie MacDonald
Pirie MacDonald Self-Portrait 
Family history 
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Visual indexes

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Internet biographies

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Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
The International Photographers Hall of Fame has provided a biography. Go to website

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Auer, Michele & Michel 1985 Encyclopedie Internationale Des Photographes de 1839 a Nos Jours / Photographers Encylopaedia International 1839 to the present (Hermance, Editions Camera Obscura) 2 volumes [A classic reference work for biographical information on photographers.] 
• Beaton, Cecil & Buckland, Gail 1975 The Magic Eye: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company) p.115 [Useful short biographies with personal asides and one or more example images.] 
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