The first-ever biography on a long-forgotten but influential photographer is also the first book by lifelong Richfield resident Dale Schwie.
Herbert W. Gleason spent nearly the first 40 years of the 20th century traveling the country as a landscape photographer. He also wrote prolifically, gave lecture after lecture and encouraged the establishment of the national parks system, according to Schwie’s book, “Taking Sides with the Sun,” released last month.
But Gleason is best known for photographing the haunts of canonized philosopher Henry David Thoreau. That’s how Schwie, an avid follower of Thoreau’s work, came to learn about the largely forgotten photographer who put to film the landscape that inspired the 19th century iconoclast.
Gleason “became pretty well known in his day, then forgotten … That was my job, to try and revive him,” Schwie, having finished his first book at the age of 75, said in an interview with the Sun Current.
The former commercial photographer used 248 pages to accomplish that task, splitting research between Thoreau’s hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, where Gleason was a clergyman and journalist before taking the path that would define his life.
During a visit to Concord 41 years ago, Schwie was introduced to vast stores of Gleason’s
negatives, which would eventually inspire him to shed new light on the well-travelled photographer.
“I wasn’t looking for this project; it found me,” Schwie says in the introduction to “Taking Sides with the Sun.”
There were already books containing Gleason’s images, and he was recognized as a Thoreau documentarian, but little was known about the man himself.
“I found him to be a very interesting character,” Schwie told the Sun Current.
Born in Malden, Massachusetts, Gleason eventually ventured to Minnesota, where he served as a minister and managing editor of a Congregational newspaper called “The Kingdom.” He spent 12 years in Minnesota as a journalist before leaving the ministry and heading back east to commence the next chapter of his life.
The invention of dry plate photographic technology had made the art form more widely accessible than ever, and Gleason took up the craft. Already a devotee of Thoreau’s work, he proceeded to document the sites visited by the stalwart philosopher. And more.
“He was a very prolific writer. He was a friend of (famed naturalist) John Muir. He really went on to do quite well,” Schwie said.
The author wrote:
“Today his works attract the interest not only of art and nature lovers, but also of scientists studying the effects of climate change and environmentalists working to restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park that was flooded in 1923 by the Hetch Hetchy Dam.”
Schwie goes on to explain that Gleason’s illustrated lectures helped establish the national park system.
Although no one had bothered to assemble a biography of Gleason, historians and academics agreed it was a worthwhile pursuit. Schwie quotes John Szarkowski, the late curator of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City:
“The quality of his work and the breadth of his reach would seem to make him a very interesting figure indeed.”
Schwie continued, “To photo historian William F. Robinson, Gleason was ‘Probably the greatest, and certainly the most prolific, New England nature photographer.’”
Research was a deep dive
Schwie had plenty reason to learn more about Gleason, the man, as he took on a campaign of painstaking research, which drew from sources such the landscape photographer’s old lecture papers and correspondence with other naturalists. Schwie found about 40 such letters at the University of Minnesota.
The author also located reams of articles by the multitalented Gleason, who was published in the likes of National Geographic and the New York Times. Some of those –
“I’m probably the only one who’s looked at them in over 100 years,” Schwie speculated.
By looking where biographers hadn’t, he uncovered aspects of Gleason’s life that weren’t part of his commonly accepted life story.
For instance, Schwie said he learned the real reason Gleason embarked on a career as a landscape photographer. It had been thought he left the ministry on account of poor health, but that wasn’t the story the author found.
Instead, Schwie said, Gleason left the ministry and the newspaper business in 1999, after his publication lost a libel lawsuit from a text book publisher that the paper had accused of impropriety. “The Kingdom” lost the suit on a technicality, according to Schwie.
In his book, Schwie speculates why such a life as distinguished as Gleason’s had gone relatively undocumented: “Was it because the Gleasons had no children? Did he turn against formal religion?”
Or, maybe it was his independent lifestyle, or the venues he chose for his work, Schwie posits. Much of Gleason’s work came in the form of illustrated lectures, which the author, who created such presentations in his own career, explained is “an ephemeral medium.”
Schwie finds a kinship with Gleason in their mutual interest in Thoreau, whose philosophy featured an embrace of nature in the face of expanding industrialization and commodification.
Schwie has helped keep Thoreau’s teachings alive locally through his involvement with the Bloomington Historical Society, where his work has included projects connected to Thoreau’s visit to the Minnesota River Valley in 1861.
In documenting the life of Gleason, Schwie includes a quote from Thoreau that distills his inspiration: “The artist and his work are not to be separated.”
And finally, for a man who might otherwise have been lost to history, that gap has been filled.
Follow Andrew Wig on Twitter @RISunCurrent.