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William Edward Dassonville

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William Edward Dassonville

American, (1879–1957)
A Pictorialist photographer known for his soft-focus landscape photographs, William Edward Dassonville was also a commercial portrait photographer and inventor of a type of photographic paper known as “Charcoal Black.” He was also a leader of the California Camera Club in San Francisco. Born in Sacramento in 1879, Dassonville’s family moved to San Francisco in the 1880s. Little is known about his early years, but he discovered photography as a youth. Sometime before 1900 he had joined the California Camera Club, which had been formed in 1890. He is listed as a member in the first issue of the Club’s magazine Camera Craft in 1900 and contributed an article on “Patinotype Printing” to that issue, which also reproduced two of his photographs. In December 1900 he joined with Oscar Maurer (1871-1965) to open a portrait studio in San Francisco. The two men helped to organize the First San Francisco Photographic Salon exhibition, held in January 1901 at the Mark Hopkins Institute (now the San Francisco Art Institute), where Dassonville showed eleven photographs. He also exhibited at a California Camera Club Exhibition at the Mechanics’ Institute in April. After that show Dassonville and Maurer traveled to Europe, where Dassonville visited France and Holland. On his return to San Francisco he opened a studio with the photographer Henry C. Lassen. Dassonville’s art photographs were shown in the Second and Third San Francisco Photographic Salons in 1902 and 1903 and in exhibitions in Oakland and Los Angeles in 1902. His first one-man exhibition was at the Paul Elder and Company bookstore in 1902. His essay “Individuality in Photography” appeared in the Overland Monthly magazine in October 1902. Dassonville traveled to Yosemite Valley in 1904, taking photographs that appeared in another solo show at Paul Elder’s store later that year. He also became secretary of the Camera Club and exhibited at the First American Photographic Salon in New York City and the exhibition of the Guild of Arts and Crafts in San Francisco that year. During these years Dassonville apparently supported himself through portrait photography and may have worked in a photographic supply store. The San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed his studio and most of his negatives, but he soon recovered. Dassonville’s portrait business prospered in the years following the earthquake; his portraits of the painter William Keith (1839-1911) are particularly notable. He was hired by the Southern Pacific Railway at the end of the decade to photograph a number of California mission churches. In 1910 he married Gertrude Blanche Perry, the socialite daughter of a Marin County physician. Dassonville continued to exhibit during the next several years, most notably at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, where one of the dozen photographs he exhibited in the Palace of Liberal Arts was awarded an honorable mention. During World War I Dassonville suffered financial difficulties and exhibited infrequently. One difficulty was the shortage of platinum paper stock. By the early 1920s he had developed a new paper stock coated with a silver bromide emulsion, and in 1924 closed his portrait studio to focus on the manufacture of his “Charcoal Black” photographic paper. Dassonville continued to exhibit his art photographs, printed on Charcoal Black paper, in London, Toronto and several other American cities as well as San Francisco. His paper became very popular among serious photographers and for a time was a commercial success. Ansel Adams (1902-1984) used Charcoal Black to print many of his photographs during the 1920s, and commissioned Dassonville to make the paper used for Adams’s book of photographs, Taos Pueblo. Dassonville’s paper manufacturing business suffered a huge decline in business from the mid-1930s, due to the combined effects of the Great Depression, development of new photographic papers and a trend away from the papers used for the soft-focus pictorialist style of photography. His financial difficulties led to marital difficulties; Dassonville and his wife were divorced in 1936. Dassonville continued to create photographs, including views of the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island in San Franciso Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. He sold his paper company in 1941. He later found work as a medical photographer at the former Stanford Hospital in San Francisco. He died in San Francisco in 1957.

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