Within a few decades of the introduction of photography in the 1830s, studios specializing in portraiture began to set up shop on Hoboken’s main street. At first, professional photographers like Charles F. May of 140 Washington Street, produced small, inexpensive photographic cards known as carte de visite, which the owner would leave with friends or relatives after a social visit. But by the late 1860s, May and other studio photographers were replacing the cards with cabinet photographs—larger, more detailed images, mounted on card stock. These were considered more suitable for parlor display, and were popular until the beginning of the first world war.
With so many photography studios on Washington Street, it’s surprising that famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a frequent visitor to Hoboken and to German journalist and translator Ottilie Assing from the late 1850s to the late 1870s, did not seek out the opportunity to capture his image in a local studio. The most photographed American of the nineteenth century, Douglass first lectured about photography in 1861; he was enthusiastic about the medium, and its increasing availability to people of modest means.
But even as photography became more available to amateurs over the years, the need for professional photographers continued into the twentieth century. People’s Studio at 1006 Washington Street, founded by Norwegian photographer Pete Peterson in the 1930s, produced banquet photographs for the many Hoboken manufacturers and associations that held their dinner dances at the prestigious Union Club.
During the decades before the war, when Hoboken boasted a large German population, many of its professional photographers were German-born, including Louis Nagel, who worked out of a portrait studio at 192 Washington Street from 1868 to 1887, Theodore G. Dimmers, who was based at 406 Washington in the 1890s, and Conrad Magnus, who owned one of The Avenue’s largest studios at 204 Washington until 1891. Magnus’s cabinet photo of a mason—Lodge No. 71 met at the German community’s Quartett Club at 1013 Washington—and his portrait of an employee of the Hoboken-based Hamburg American ocean liner company, show his connection to established members of the German community. But his scope was broader still: he served as the official photographer for the Hoboken Police Department, and his work included the production of headshots for the department’s “Rogues Gallery.”
The growing ease of the photographic process, including, by the 1880s, the development of portable cameras and roll film, boosted the rise in amateur photography, with Hoboken residents enthusiastically establishing club houses on the city’s main street. The Hoboken Camera Club, based at 140 Washington Street from 1889-1892, may have been the first, followed by the Elysian Camera Club, founded in 1902 with headquarters at 307 Washington Street. There club members could enjoy the use of a dark room, a hall for lectures, demonstrations, exhibits, and meetings (often with cigars.) The outings of both clubs were spirited, according to local press accounts.