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HomeContents > People > Photographers > William H. Bell

Other: William Bell 
Dates:  1830 - 1910
Born:  Great Britain
Active:  US
American photographer.

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William H. Bell
William Bell 
1870 (ca)
Family history 
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[EDITORIAL NOTE: Please note that the following previously unpublished text has been kindly provided by Barbara Mayo Wells a descendent of William Bell. Although it refers to photographs that are not included here it will be of interest to other researchers and I welcome feedback.
William W. Bell, 1830 - 1910
(Rau's Father-in-Law)
Uncle Will became interested in photography at an early age. Some sources suggest that his older brother, George, who operated a photographic studio in the family's home on Girard Street, was the source of young Will's interest. The 12-year age difference between the two brothers may have been great enough for such an influence to develop and, as noted earlier, there may have been another Rau in the field.
The more likely influence, I think, was William W. Bell (1830 - 1910), to whom Uncle Will informally apprenticed himself when he was only 13 or 14 years old. In choosing his mentor, Uncle Will was (whether deliberately or by accident, one wonders?) choosing not just a profession but an adventurous way of life. Thanks to William Bell, the young man would circumnavigate the globe before reaching his 21st birthday and own his own business while still in his twenties!
We don't know much about Bell personally, and what we do know about his career is confused by the fact that there were two 19th-century William Bells, almost exact contemporaries. The confusion arises because neither used a middle initial, one was a physician, the other (ours) a photographer; but the photographer took medical photos, and the physician photographed the same area of the American West that the photographer also chronicled!
The other Bell. The physician, William A. (for Abraham) Bell, was born in 1840 in Ireland into London Society. His father, also a physician, had a practice that doctored Royals. In 1867, the 27-year-old Bell came to St. Louis, Missouri, to attend a series of lectures on homeopathy and decided to stay in the U.S. for awhile. He applied for a position with the Kansas and Pacific Railroad for a survey and mapping expedition led by General William J. Palmer. The position of doctor was filled, but a photographer was needed, so Bell took a crash course in photography, purchased equipment, and was hired by the railroad. He and Palmer became business partners, sharing some 30 or so ventures including the Denver and Rio Grand Railroad and a resort at Manitou Springs, Colorado. Bell and his wife Cara returned to England in 1890, where he died in 1921 of a heart condition
Our Bell. Our William Bell was born in 1830 in Liverpool, a member of the minor gentry. He soon became a dabbler in the arts. Stereo World[1] magazine [May/June 1984] describes him as a noted Philadelphia photographer. Bell began his photographic career in Philadelphia in 1848 as a daguerreotyper in partnership with his brother-in-law John A. Keenan, with whom Bell worked for two years before branching out on his own, at times collaborating with others. Bell opened his own daguererotype gallery in 1852 in Philadelphia,[2] and may have received some training from photographer Charles Ehrmann.
Digression on Bell's colleagues. Keenan (also spelled 'Kenan') was a 'photographist' in Philadelphia between 1848 and 1860, with studios at 312, later at 340, Market Street and at 248, later at 252, South Second Street. Carl August Theodor Ehrmann (1822 - 1894), a Prussian by birth, was trained in chemistry and pharmacy in Berlin. (From chemist to photographer is not such a stretch as one might think, particularly in those early days where an artistic eye would not be of much use to a photographer who couldn?t handle the chemicals of his trade.) Arriving in this country around 1849, Ehrmann first settled in Michigan. He shortly left for Mexico, in search of gold, and then moved to New York City, where he worked in a photo gallery. Later he came to Philadelphia, where he worked as a prescription clerk in a drugstore. It was there he met James McClees (see below) and went to work for him as a chemist. Ehrmann recalled that, in 1852, he and an associate experimented with collodion. In addition to his work in Philadelphia, Ehrmann was part owner of a daguerreian gallery in Lancaster, Pa. In 1881 he became assistant editor of the Photographic Times, a journal in which Uncle Will was to publish a number of articles. From 1886 on, Ehrmann was an instructor in the Chautauqua University School of Photography.
Bell's Civil War career. A veteran of the Mexican War, Bell joined the 12th Pennsylvania cavalry, the 113th regiment of the line, Union Army. If Civil War history doesn't interest you, skip the next few paragraphs that recount the experiences of Bell's unit. [3]
The 12th cavalry, organized at Philadelphia in the winter of 1861-62, when it was mustered in for three years. It left for Washington late in April 1862 and was posted near Manassas Junction to guard the Orange & Alexandria railroad. On 26 August, it was ordered to White Plains to ascertain the location of the enemy, who soon afterward arrived at Manassas in force.
Withdrawing to Centerville after a narrow escape at Bristoe, where a heavy loss was sustained, the regiment proceeded to Alexandria and was ordered to guard the north [Maryland] shore of the Potomac from Chain bridge to Edwards' ferry. It was held in reserve at South mountain and was in the rear at Antietam, but was employed after the battle in ascertaining the position of the retreating foe and then stationed along the Baltimore & Ohio railroad near Bath, VA. Several excursions into the surrounding country were undertaken and at Fisher's hill the enemy was encountered and an engagement ensued. This duty occupied the regiment for the winter of 1862-63, its next engagement of importance being at Winchester in June, 1863, when it broke through the investing Confederate lines, sustaining some losses.
After the battle of Gettysburg, some of the wagon trains of the retreating foe fell into the hands of the 12th Pennsylvania and 1st New York at Cunningham cross-roads and Mercersburg. July was spent at Sharpsburg, and the regiment was then ordered to Martinsburg, remaining in the vicinity until the spring of 1864.
At the beginning of the year 1864, nearly the entire regiment reenlisted, were furloughed and returned to Martinsburg in April. Upon the advance of Gen. Early's army toward Washington in July 1864, the cavalry retired before him, disputing the way and engaging at Solomon's Gap, Pleasant Valley, Crampton's Gap, Winchester, and Kernstown. It became necessary to remount and recruit, and the regiment was stationed in the autumn at Charlestown, WV.
During the following winter it was on guard duty along the railroad between Winchester and Harper's Ferry and in March 1865 was sent across the Blue Ridge to clear the country of guerrillas, engaging at Harmony with some loss on March 22. In April, the 12th moved to Winchester and was assigned to the Army of the Shenandoah, the cavalry force under the command of Col. Reno. When the news of Lee's surrender was received, the regiment was stationed at Mount Jackson to intercept and parole soldiers of Lee's army passing there. Returning to Winchester, it was mustered out on July 20, 1865.
Bell as medical photographer. As for Bell himself, beginning in 1863, he took a series of medical photographs. What prompted him to do so is unknown, but it was almost certainly not morbid curiosity. As Michael Rhode, in "Photography and the Army Medical Museum, 1862 - 1945," observes:
When viewing these early photos there are two important points to keep in mind. America's last major war had been the much smaller conflict with Mexico thirteen years earlier in 1846 - 1848. As a result, most doctors, whether career military officers or newly enlisted civilians, had almost no experience with gunshot wounds, especially those made by the newly developed Miniť ball. Miniť had developed a conical bullet that came out of a rifled barrel; this high-speed bullet caused a significantly worse wound than the older soft lead ball. Secondly, no one knew what a wound looked like inside of damaged tissue as x-rays would not be discovered for another 30 years.
Late in 1867, these first medical photographs of Bell's were published in a book on the medical history of the war.
Following the war, Bell wound up for a time in Washington, DC, where he seems to have had a branch studio. While there, he encountered U.S. Army Major John Hill Brinton.
Brinton, first curator of the Army Medical Museum (now the National Museum of Health and Medicine, an element of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology), recognized that photography was a more accurate, quicker, potentially more comprehensive, and perhaps even cheaper way of illustrating medical texts and records than the usual method of artists' sketches and woodcuts. He hired Bell, apparently on contract, as head of the Museum?s photographic department. Bell's work forms the backbone of that museum?s collection of war wound photographs.
The Army Medical Museum collected and commissioned photographs to study "all specimens of morbid anatomy, surgical or medical, which may be regarded as the study of military medicine or surgery." According to a report written by the editor of the Philadelphia Photographer, "The principal work of the photographer is to photograph shattered bones, broken skulls, and living subjects, before and after surgical operations. Of course, all these subjects were created by the war." Besides forming an archive, the photographs were used to aid the engraver in making woodcuts to illustrate medical books.
Much of Bell's work for the museum centered on photographing the specimens collected by the Museum - usually of gunshot wounds, showing how the bullet had fragmented the bone. Like his counterparts in other army branches, Bell and the photographers who succeeded him at the Army Medical Museum carefully documented the effects rather than the events of the war, as well as the healing techniques developed by medical officers to care for the wounded.[4]
In the two photographs at left above, the norms of the studio portrait prevail. The photographer?s chair, with its Victorian fringe, seems a ludicrously conventional prop in view of the subject matter. The man at the near left has disrobed only to the minimum extent necessary, and the use of the mirror, as well as showing the bullet's entry and exit, allows him to confront the camera directly. There he stands, a human being entire. A modern clinical photograph would only show a piece of him.[5] In the photo at right, a wounded young veteran of the American Civil War, wearing only a short and jacket, stands supported by crutches, his right leg severely wounded as described in the photograph's title [Gunshot Fracture of Shaft of the Right Femur]. A mirror is placed behind him in order to show the leg from multiple angles, but the reflection mercifully reduces the gruesome evidence to shadow, blocked by the right crutch. He stares intently at the camera, perhaps uncomfortable being photographed in such an awkward and immodest position, yet surely grateful to be among the survivors.[6]
In 1871, five volumes including many photographs by Bell were formally published as Photographs of Surgical Cases and Specimens Taken at the Army Medical Museum.
In 1867, one of the William Bells (whether ours or the physician is difficult to determine) assisted Alexander Gardner[7] in photographing northern Arizona for the Union Pacific Railroad. In that same year, our William Bell purchased the Philadelphia photograph gallery of James E. McClees. McClees (1821 - 1887) is credited with making the first collodion negative in this country. He began his photographic career in 1844 and worked as a daguerreian from 1847 until 1860 or later. He owned daguerreian studios in Philadelphia and Washington. In 1854, he traveled to Boston to learn photographic processes from an expert there and was apparently successful in making the transition from daguerreian to photographer.
Bell in the wide open western spaces. In 1868, our William Bell joined a western survey team as a photographer. His experience on this expedition may have led to the 1872 commission he received from Lieutenant George Wheeler, engineer of the fourth United States Geological Survey, Bell to accompany him as photographer on an expedition into Arizona ("Geographical Explorations and Surveys West of the 100th Meridian").
Among Bell's photos from this expedition, now housed in the Library of Congress, are four views of the canyon of Kanab Wash (Colorado River), one of the mouth of Kanab Wash, and two of the Grand Canyon near Paria Creek. On the next page is another sample of Bell's work, also from that expedition, a stereoview card offered for sale on the internet during the month of August 2001 and alleged to show a naked man.
The Western Survey photographs (among a series of 19th-century glass plate negatives in the holdings of the Still Pictures Branch of the National Archives) - including many by Bell - were selected for a major preservation project. Bell's work with Timothy H. O?Sullivan, under the direction of George M. Wheeler,[8] was part of a series of photographic surveys that helped convince the federal government to preserve some wilderness areas as national parks. The photographs were published in Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian.
Patagonia and the Transit of Venus. Bell's extensive field work on this project led to later work on an expedition to Patagonia, where in 1882 he photographed the Transit of Venus. Photographically speaking, this expedition was more successful than the one that Uncle Will had taken in the previous decade, in that several of the 1882 team's photographs still survive.
Bell's work is represented today (January 2002) in the following collections:[9]
  • The American Geographical Society Collection, Western Photograph Collection [49 prints and tereographic slides by Bell]
  • The Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
  • The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Collection of Western Americana, Yale University Library, P.O. Box 208240, New Haven, CT 06520-8240
  • Canadian Museum of Art / Vancouver Art Gallery
  • The Denver Art Museum
  • George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue, Rochester, NY 14607. Still Photograph Archive: William Bell Series
  • J. Paul Getty Museum Collections, Los Angeles, CA
  • National Anthropological Archives (Smithsonian Institution)
  • National Museum of American Art (Smithsonian Institution), Helios, American Photographs: The First Century
  • National Museum of Health & Medicine, collection OHA 82, Surgical Photographs, 1860 ? 1880s, a series of 400 photographs.
  • Records of the U.S. Geological Survey
  • Records of the U.S. Park Service
  • Wesleyan University Davison Art Center, "The English Golden Age and the American Scene (1855 - 1890)"
By the time young Will Rau encountered him (in 1873 or earlier), Bell had returned from his western travels and was operating his own photographic studio in Philadelphia at 1200 Chestnut Street.
Bell's progeny. Bell and his British-born wife Louisa Keenan had at least two sons (Harry L. Bell, born circa 1862, and Dickson S. Bell, born 1874) and two daughters (the plump and comely Louisa Emilia Casanova Bell, born circa 1856, and the ethereal Ida Florence Bell, dates unknown). We know of the sons' existence thanks to the 1880 Census, of Ida's because a portrait of her taken by her father graces the Rau family photo album, and of Louise because she became Uncle Will's wife.
Louise (or Louisa) Emilia Casanova Bell (born circa 1856)
Louise Bell Rau was a photographer in her own right, whether before as well as after her marriage we do not know.
She and Will Rau married young - just how young, it is difficult to say. One source says that By promoting Rau for the position [on the 1874 Transit of Venus expedition], Bell also assured himself that Rau?s courtship of his daughter. . . would be postponed for at least a year.[10] However, other sources say that Bell secured the position for his son-in-law . . . meaning that the marriage would have occurred before the expedition, when Uncle Will was only 19 and Louise just 18. Was this a case of true love, or did young Will have his eye on the main chance?
Louise Rau's career is not (yet) documented on the Internet, save for the statement that she exhibited in pictorialist circles in Philadelphia.[11] She does appear to have accompanied her husband on at least some of his photographic expeditions, for the 1880 census found the two of them (listed as William and Louisa Raw) among the 34 occupants of an Allentown (PA) hotel owned by carpenter John A. Heimbach. The employees who lived on the premises included a hotel keeper, bartender, hostler, livery stable (!), and 4 servants; among the Raus' fellow residents were a coachmaker, a Prussian boiler maker, an attorney-at-law, a 22-year-old student, a saddler, and a retired merchant.
John Helmbold, grandson of Uncle Will's brother John, claimed that his mother - Elva Louise Rau (born 7 November 1873) - was named after Louise Bell Rau. This seems highly unlikely, given that Will and Louise were probably not married until after Elva's birth (7 Nov 1873). Cousin John recalled that Uncle Will and Louise visited the Helmbold family farm in Horsham (PA) while he, John, was a youngster. Aside from that, nothing is known of Louise Bell Rau's life save that she continued to visit the farm after Uncle Will's death and that (as one photograph attests) she remained both plump and comely into old age.
[1] The title refers not to music, but to stereoscopic photography.
[2] Sources: (1) Wolf, Daniel, Ed. The American Space. Meaning in Nineteenth-Century Landscape Photography. 1983. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. Introduction by Robert Adams. (2) Treadwell, T.K. & William C. Darrah, National Stereoscopic Association, v.2 (c1994). (3) Cleveland Museum of Art ( (4) Getty Explore Art (
[4] Getty museum online description
[5] Canadian Museum of Art Journal, August 24, 1999 (online: vol. 161, issue 4).
[6] Ibid.
[7]?Alexander Gardner [1821-1882] was famous for his photographic work with Matthew Brady during the Civil War and for the Department of the Interior, Union Pacific Railway and the Union Army. Together with William Bell, he photographed northern Arizona for the Union Pacific Railway in 1867. Gardner moved on to Kansas working with Elsworth and Hays.?
[8] NARA 77.5.2 Records of the Office of U.S. Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian (?Wheeler Survey?) include 277 stereographic prints and stereographic glass negatives by Bell and O?Sullivan.
[9] This list is not necessarily complete, being based on Internet searches.
[10] Finkel, Traveling the Pennsylvania Railroad, p. 16.
[11] Getty Museum, online.  

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William Bell ... 
George Eastman House has a considerable collection of the work of William Bell. 

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If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

• Naef, Weston 1995 The J. Paul Getty Museum - Handbook of the Photographic Collection (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum) p.88 
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