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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Wilbur H. Porterfield

Born: Wilbur Herber Porterfield 
Dates:  1873, 26 May - 1958, 16 November
Born:  US, PA, Oil Bug City
Died:  US, NY, Buffalo

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Approved biography for Wilbur H. Porterfield
(Courtesy of Christian Peterson)

An accomplished newspaper photographer in Buffalo, Porterfield also made his mark in pictorial photography during the first thirty years of the twentieth century. He made primarily landscapes and printed them in carbon.
Wilbur Herber Porterfield was born in the small boomtown of Oil Bug City, Pennsylvania, on May 26, 1873. After his father died, the family moved to Bradford, where Porterfield started working for the Western Union Company at age thirteen. In 1888, his family moved to Buffalo, New York, where he was hired by Cosack and Company, lithographers. He worked for another printer in Philadelphia for five years, and returned to Buffalo for good in 1900. There, he resumed work at Cosack as cashier, staying with the firm until it went bankrupt in 1921.
He soon found work as a photographer for the Buffalo Courier, which was adding a new weekly rotogravure section to the paper. For nearly forty years, Porterfield’s sole responsibility was to provide two, non-newsworthy pictures a week for a feature titled "As Porterfield Sees It." In 1926, when the paper absorbed another one to become the Buffalo Courier-Express, his photographs began reaching 115,000 subscribers a week. A section featuring his images was even continued after his death for over ten years, renamed "As Porterfield Saw It." He firmed established his reputation during the 1930s, when he judged photographic salons, spoke at art organizations, and associated with other nationally known local figures such as the painter Charles Burchfield.
Porterfield’s personal photographic interest began in 1901, when he bought a camera and joined the Buffalo Camera Club. He served as the club’s secretary and president, but in 1906 broke away with seven other members to form the Photo-Pictorialists of Buffalo, an exclusive group devoted to making primarily artistic landscape images. He soon became the group’s most successful exhibitor and served as it correspondent, responsible for publicity and organizing shows of members’ work. Their first exhibition announced their serious intentions to the pictorial world and was seen at four American venues in 1907. After premiering at the Photographic Society of Philadelphia, it traveled to the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.) and the Art Institute of Chicago, and then came home to Buffalo’s Albright Art Gallery.
The Photo-Pictorialists of Buffalo disbanded at the outbreak of World War I, but in 1921 published an important book on their work. Pictorial Landscape Photography, which does not list an individual author, covers the group’s artistic theories and technical methods, including the carbon and gum-bichromate processes. Among its forty-one illustrations are some attributed to the Photo-Pictorialists of Buffalo jointly, as well as ten by Porterfield.
On his own, Porterfield wrote three articles on the carbon process for the American Annual of Photography, which appeared in 1904, 1905, and 1906. In 1920, he was a member of the Pictorial Photographers of America, when he wrote an article for its yearbook Pictorial Photography in America. And, he reviewed the Pittsburgh salon for monthly magazines in 1917, 1920, and 1922.
Porterfield’s atmospheric and accessible landscape photographs were widely seen and appreciated by fellow photographers and the general public from about 1905 to the 1920s. Reproductions of them appeared regularly in both the American Annual of Photography and England’s Photograms of the Year. In 1905, one of his images was included as an original silver print in the Washington, D.C., catalog for the traveling First American Photographic Salon. He largely stopped sending his pictorial pieces to salons once he began doing newspaper work, but before then juries accepted them in Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, London, and Turin. In 1909, he won a gold medal in Dresden, Germany, and in 1912 he had a solo show at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. The Photo Era reviewer of the 1920 Pittsburgh salon called him "that Buffalo genius."
Porterfield presented one-person exhibitions of his pictorial photographs at the Toledo Museum of Art in 1913, the California Camera Club (San Francisco) in 1917, and Buffalo’s own Albright Art Gallery in 1922 and 1941. He died on November 16, 1958, still working at the Buffalo Courier-Express, at age eighty-five. 
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. 
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Edwin Kelle
Wilbur H. Porterfield, Williamsville 
1906, Winter
Family history 
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