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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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James Bayne, Furniture Photographer

They shook their heads dubiously when the late James Bayne announced before the turn of the century that henceforth he would devote his talents and skill to the photographing of furniture.

“They” were the portrait photographers of Grand Rapids of that day. Mr. Bayne had been one of them for several years. He was a good one, but he had conceived the idea that there was an untapped field in furniture photography. He had observed that when Grand Rapids furniture salesmen took to the road to sell the products of the local plants they had to do one of two things. They had to ship their furniture samples by freight to the cities on their routes in order to show them to prospective customers, or to depend upon their ability to present word pictures of the furniture so vividly that the buyers could conjure a tempting conception of the merits of the merchandise.

Shipping furniture was slow and costly. Oral descriptions weren’t always too effective. Many buyers were not adept at visualizing the picture the salesman was attempting to convey. Why couldn’t furniture be photographed so expertly that the prospective buyer could see for himself the beauty of its design and style? He interested several manufacturers in the idea and they sent some samples over to his studio.

The manufacturers were well pleased with the results, and had Bayne make up sets of the pictures for their salesmen to take on the road. The idea met with immediate success and thus was born an offshoot of the furniture industry that was still carried on in the James Bayne Company plant on Front Ave. NW in the 1950s.

From Portraits to Furniture

Bayne, born in Canada in 1845, was apprenticed as a boy to a photographer. He came to the United States around 1868, and to Grand Rapids in 1875. In 1876 he was Hutchinson & Bayne; in 1879, Merrill & Bayne; he was on his own by 1880, with his studio located on Monroe; and by 1886 had a new studio at Fountain St. and Ionia where the Steketee store would eventually stand.

When he launched his furniture photographing business in 1890, on Front NW, not only did the local manufacturers seek Bayne’s service, but also buyers here for the semi-annual markets heard of the fine photography being done here and became customers.

To make things easier for the local manufacturers, Bayne acquired portable equipment and would do his photography in the furniture plants, making it unnecessary to move the furniture over to Bayne’s plant. Studio lighting in those days was natural, not electric. Photographers’ studios were always located where a skylight was available; most furniture plants would have had skylights available in some part of the factory.

Bayne Expands

It wasn’t long before Bayne got into catalogue work and added other departments at his plant so as to provide complete service. He employed designers, illustrators, artists, engravers, bookbinders, etc.

Perhaps the most notable demonstration of this method is the James Bayne Company of Grand Rapids, who sent their photographer on April 14, 1905 to the factory of the New Orleans Furniture Manufacturing Company in New Orleans, arriving on the evening the 16th. On the 17th and 18th a temporary gallery was erected under the direction of the James Bayne Co., and a line of 125 pieces was photographed by 4 o’clock p.m.

From this point the photographer was sent to Vicksburg, Mississippi, and there erected a temporary gallery, photographed a line of 85 pieces and all negatives were shipped to Grand Rapids on the evening of the 20th. The negatives were developed and 1,500 photos printed ready for delivery May 2nd. The entire work was accomplished in eighteen days, the photographer covering 2,250 miles to do the work.

Bayne was not the first to photograph furniture in the city. Elias Matter of the Nelson, Matter Furniture Co. appears to hold that honor when he set up a studio on the top floor of the factory and hired a photographer. Placement on the top floor was important; that’s where the skylight would be located. Phoenix Furniture employed Lon M. Neely who photographed their 1878 catalog. Berkey & Gay also had photographs in their 1878 catalog. However, Bayne may have been the first in Grand Rapids to establish himself as a successful independent commercial photographer of furniture.

Excerpted from Peninsular Club Magazine, February 1956, page 34; The Grand Rapids Furniture Record, May 1905, page 777; Furniture Manufacturer & Artisan, December 1, 1924, page 296.

Article posted: August 10, 2014

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