April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
Fitz W. Guerin, shown here in a moment of solemn whimsy, was a St. Louis photographer who ordinarily took his work very seriously. Born in Ireland in 1846, he joined the Union Army at fifteen, apprenticed himself to a photographer after the war, and then, until shortly before his death in 1903, made a good living photographing well-to-do citizens of his city. The crisp fidelity of his work was especially prized; one reporter said of his wedding portraits, “The rich lace on one of the dresses was so distinct that I could almost feel it, every figure, yea almost every thread, being as distinct as if I held the precious fabric in my hand.” But Guerin was not satisfied. Between sittings he lavished hours on more ambitious undertakings—crowded sentimental scenes usually built around the doings of children, as well as what then passed for bachelor art. He was an overreacher. The 350 mostly unpublished Guerin pictures at the Library of Congress are technically superb, but his set pieces, grand though each must have seemed in the planning, somehow never quite come off. The following pages offer a small sampling of his more arresting failures, which- charged as they are with a sort of menacing dark comedy—divert us in ways their author never intended.