George Edward Anderson, 1860-1928
His understanding of enduring value
defied the common sense of his day
By Ryan Roos
As the summer winds of 1914 swept over Manti, the town vagabond lay asleep in the old hay barn behind the Co-op. Penniless, George Edward Anderson, once the most beloved photographer in Sanpete County, had chased his dreams straight into ruin.
Estranged from his family and friends, Anderson was left wandering the same countryside that years before had celebrated his arrival. He continued endlessly searching for another angle, a better shot or something to prove to those he loved that his life’s work hadn’t been a tragic mistake.
But the shot never came, and when his heart gave out in 1928, Anderson’s photographic legacy was sold for pennies and forgotten by his contemporaries.
But the winds of time have a way of correcting mistakes.
George Edward Anderson was born on October 28, 1860 to Mormon pioneer parents. Raised in Salt Lake City, Anderson showed a promise that soon caught the attention of noted Utah photographer Charles R. Savage, a teacher who could not have been more perfectly tailored to the task of mentoring young Anderson.
Anderson launched out as a professional at the age of 17. In an era when many young men were seeking their wealth in mining, Anderson sought his fortune in the faces of the pioneers.
The young photographer began traveling through the agricultural valleys of Central Utah with a portable tent photo studio designed to bring big city photo technology to the Utah’s rural populations.
In Manti, a town that impressed him favorably, Anderson decided to construct a permanent studio. In 1886, he opened the George E. Anderson Temple Bazar on the corner of 200 South and Main Street. The Temple Bazar invited Sanpete County residents of all ages to be immortalized by Anderson’s lens. The town and the community supported the new studio, and the results were nothing short of spectacular.
Anderson’s talent effortlessly captured entire life stories in a single, still moment. His portraits seem to depict every pain and every joy his pioneer subjects had experienced while settling the unforgiving land.
Anderson’s photographic gifts presented the Sanpete community and their posterity something more valuable than the gold in the mountains: He captured in breathtaking fashion their pure and raw dignity. Today, much of what is visually known of the founders of Central Utah can be traced to this humble studio in Manti.
Other sites were also ripe to be captured. Toward the north of town, the emerging Manti Temple began to dominate the skyline. As stones were placed and towers erected, the entire scene was carefully captured, almost exclusively by Anderson’s camera.
Anderson’s days in Sanpete yielded more than photographs. This is where he met and married Olive Lowry, daughter of prominent Manti pioneer John Lowry Jr. They became the second couple to be sealed in the temple he had so painstakingly documented over the previous two years.
Soon after their marriage, the pair moved north to Springville. Riding high on his experience in Manti, Anderson began a ambitious project that would consume the remainder of his life: The development of a commercially successful photo studio.
But Anderson was not cut out for commercial success. The eccentricities that lent themselves so well to Anderson’s photographic genius made him a poor businessman and an even worse employer. Anderson struggled to keep his help as employees buckled under the precision he demanded. Several who had once been under his guidance and payroll launched their own studios, creating competition Anderson was ill-equipped to handle.
His own customers failed to appreciate his passion for rural Utah. His subjects were too familiar, too commonplace. Photo enthusiasts of the era clamored for pretty pictures to hang, not the rugged and broken faces of reality.
The period became one of deep and often dark reflection for the nearly middle-aged Anderson. Journal entries reveal a man unyielding in his dedication to the importance of his work, yet tortured by the lack of appreciation it was receiving in the marketplace.
Caught between the need for financial stability and his quest to capture the world around him, the headstrong Anderson dove deeper into his personal photographic vision—and deeper into debt. From miners and farmers to railroad workers, Anderson kept shooting the world he considered beautiful.
Somewhat mercifully, Anderson was called on a mission to England in 1907, an event that would shield him from witnessing the failure of his newly constructed studio. The building was rented out, and Anderson’s longtime mentor Charles Savage was asked to market a portion of Anderson’s work in Salt Lake City in his absence.
As Anderson traveled East, he found himself distracted by historic sites that related to the origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Vermont and New York. True to his instincts, Anderson recorded it all. Over several months, his camera captured sites ranging from the Sacred Grove and the Hill Cumorah to the birthplace of Joseph Smith.
It would be nearly seven years before he would return home. The years abroad represent a mysterious era in the photographer’s life. We know he adopted a son in England, much to the disapproval of his wife, as well as continuing with his photography.
Although the period represents a massive body of Anderson’s mature photographic work, the majority of the images he captured overseas have never surfaced.
Anderson lived out his final years in extreme poverty and often alone. He worked nights at a family-owned factory to survive, and devoted what little time and money he could to travel and photography, endlessly searching for artistic validation.
In 1928, having never achieved the commercial success or respect he so deeply desired, Anderson died of heart failure.
Months after his death, the church purchased the majority of his glass slide negatives, 40,000 in number, from his wife, Olive, for $2,500. Tragically, in the 1960s nearly 10,000 of the negatives were destroyed in an effort to conserve space. Yet a church employee with the historical vision of Anderson himself rescued the remaining negatives.
These salvaged negatives ultimately found their way to Brigham Young University. In 2005, in what can only be seen as a fitting tribute to Anderson’s lifelong dedication, the university received a grant to digitize the negatives and place the entire collection online for all to enjoy.
George Edward Anderson was an enigma to those who knew him, a man whose understanding of what held enduring value defied the common sense of his day. As with so many visionaries, time vindicated the artist only after his death.
Today, it is through Anderson’s marvelous photographs that countless Sanpete and Central Utah families are becoming acquainted with the beauty and surroundings of their remarkable pioneer ancestors whose faces and legacy Anderson valued above all else.
Ryan Roos is a local LDS documents and book expert, and owns Tilted Tulip Floral and Thunderbird Books in Ephraim.