George Fiske, photographer, was the “Big Chief Rain-in-the-Face” of the early Yosemite illustrators. His whole life was marked by a series of tragedies and ended with one. Fiske’s troubles began 22 years after October 22, 1835 when he was born and 3000 miles from Amherst, New Hampshire where he was raised as a farm boy. He had moved to California and taken a job as a banking clerk for his brother’s company. The company was located in the same building where Charles Leander Weed, one of the first to photograph Yosemite, managed a photography studio. Within six years, George had learned photography and was working as an assistant to well known photographer Carleton E Watkins and later, Eadweard Muybridge. Then his luck started going down hill. In just one year, George lost is Mother, Father and brother, James. The following year, he married Elmira F Morrill (“Myra”) and returned to work with Watkins, who immediately went bankrupt. He worked on his own in San Francisco for a while then, in 1879, relocated to Yosemite Valley where he set up shop as the first permanent photographer to reside in the park.

Fiske became close friends with Galen Clark, who was Yosemite Park’s first Superintendent. Some reports say they even grew up together in New Hampshire, a few miles apart. That is certainly not true[1]. But, they were friends at Yosemite. Fiske was the photographer of choice to illustrate Clark’s books.

George Fiske Grave Marker

George Fiske Grave Marker

Tragedy was never far from Fiske’s door step as his wife passed away of cancer after 22 years of marriage. He married Carrie Paull in 1897 after meeting her in the Valley while she vacationed there. In 1904 his home and studio burnt down, costing him two cameras, some lenses, most of his negatives and plates and a large number of his prints. His friend, Galen Clark, past away in 1910 and his second wife died in 1917. Finally, after being diagnosed with a brain tumor, suffering sever headaches, life had just dealt him too many blows. On October 21, 1918, one day before his 83rd birthday, George Fiske took his own life. George is buried in the Yosemite Cemetery. His second wife, Carrie, is buried next him on the right and his friend, Galen Clark, is buried on the other side, to the left.

Even in death, life mocked Fiske. By this time, Ansel Adams, the fledgling photographer, was working in the park and had suggested that the attic of a saw mill was not the best place to store the negatives of such a prominent photographer[2]. It would be better, he said, to have them relocated to the basement of the Yosemite Museum. His advice was not heeded and in 1943 Adam’s concern was manifested when the

Carrie Fiske Grave Marker

Carrie Fiske Grave Marker

remainder of Fiske’s glass plate negatives and those of noted photographer JT Boysen were destroyed in a fire when the saw mill burnt down.

I hesitate to use images where there may be copyright issues, so I have provided links to the images I think are significant. On line images:

George Fiske in Front of his Studio in Yosemite

Galen Clark Standing on Ledge at Glacier Point This image was taken of his friend, Galen Clark. It makes me wonder who was the better friend. Galen, for walking

Galen Clark Grave Marker

Galen Clark Grave Marker

out on the ledge IN THE SNOW, or Fiske for levitating about 3000 feet above the valley floor to take the picture!!!?

Big Tree Room Barnard’s Hotel, Yosemite. This room, originally built by John Muir for James Hutchings at Hutchings House, was run by J.K. Barnard at the time Fiske took this photograph in 1884.Though the Hotel was been torn down (in 1941), the tree, or what’s left of the tree, still remains standing.

Remains of the Big Tree of "The Big Tree Room"

Remains of the Big Tree of
“The Big Tree Room”

Ansel Adams said that he admired the photography of George Fiske more than the other, early photographers saying, “…he had the better eye….” In this untitled image you can see why. This view of Half Dome and North Dome was taken from a vantage point not often seen.


[1] Some biographies have Clark born in Shipton Canada (just east of Montreal), which is a bit of a jaunt from Amerst, New Hampshire were Fiske was born. However, other sources have Clark born in Dublin, New Hampshire which is, in fact, just a few miles away. However, there is no way they knew each other as children no matter how far apart they were born or lived as Clark was 21 years older than Fiske.

[2] Adams had once commented that of the early photographers, he admired the work of Fiske the best. He had said, “…he had the better eye…”