“Splendid Specimens of the Art Photographic”: Valentine Wolfenstein, Los Angeles Photographer in the 1870s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The most recent “Portrait Gallery” post focused on an image of prominent Californio figure Reginaldo F. del Valle, taken in the 1870s by Valentine Wolfenstein, and several other of his portraits have been featured in this blog before.  Today’s post, though, delves into the photographer and his life and career, in Los Angeles and elsewhere, and it is a remarkable story on a number of levels, professional and personal.

Wolfenstein was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1845 and emigrated to the United States while still in his teens.  On 31 January 1865, while in New York City, he enlisted in the Union Army, joining Company F of the 40th New York Infantry, which was formed in June 1861 and was known as the “Mozart Regiment.”

A record of Valentine Wolfenstein’s Civil War service in a New York infantry regiment with the Union Army from January to June 1865

He was with the regiment when it fought in several campaigns and battles in Virginia as Union forces closed in on the Confederates and was present at Appomattox on 9 April when rebel General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant ending the war.  Another soldier present at that historic event was Charles M. Jenkins, the only Los Angeles resident who fought for the Union Army during the war and who was in a Massachusetts cavalry regiment.

Wolfenstein and his regiment remained in Virginia for a few more weeks and then marched to Washington, D.C., where they participated in a grand review of troops on 23 May.  A little over a month later, he and his fellow soldiers mustered out at Hart’s Island in Long Island Sound offshore from the Bronx in New York City (the island has been used as a potter’s field cemetery and is now being used to bury unclaimed victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Wolfenstein’s listing as a “portfolio maker” in San Francisco in its 1869 directory.  He began photography at New Bedford, Massachusetts two years before and took photos in New Mexico in 1868.

By 1867, Wolfenstein was in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the historic whaling town on the south shore of that state and began his career in photography.  His stay was short, though, as he migrated west and was in New Mexico taking photos the following year.  The profession of the photographer was a highly competitive and challenging one, frequently necessitating moves to new places to try and find a market to sustain the business.

Wolfenstein was in San Francisco in 1869, listed in the city directory for that year for his gallery on Market Street in what is now the Civic Center area.  The following year, he was in Los Angeles and, when the federal census was conducted that August, he was enumerated with painter and photographer Henri Penelon and his occupation as “”Dagarian [Daguerrian] Artist,” a specific reference to taking photos in the daguerreotype format.

Wolfenstein 1870 census
At number 21 on this sheet from the 1870 census at Los Angeles is Wolfenstein, whose occupation is “Dagarian [Daguerrian] artist” with artist and photographer Henri Penelon.
It has been reported that, in 1871, Penelon was working for Wolfenstein, who had a gallery in the second floor of the final addition to the Temple Block, finished that year by F.P.F. Temple, that housed the bank of Temple and Workman.  A photo that shows the block before the new building was completed and when the two-story adobe building that Temple’s brother Jonathan built in the late 1840s was still standing includes a large sign painting on an adjacent brick building completed by F.P.F. for Wolfenstein’s gallery.  So, the photo may reflect what is shown on the 1870 census.

In any case, Wolfenstein remained in the Temple Block for several years and, in fall 1873, an ad gave the name of his establishment as “Wolfenstein’s Art and Photographic Gallery.”  He claimed that his studio was “unequalled by any other house in Los Angeles” and specialized in copying, enlarging and retouching existing images, something evidently not offered by others.  A note at the bottom cautioned that those wanting “a soft and artistic Picture” should “avoid coming late in the afternoon during the short [fall and winter] days.”

Los Angeles Herald, 24 October 1873.

In March 1874, after four years of toil and, presumably, decent remuneration as Los Angeles grew during its first sustained period of development starting late the prior decade, Wolfenstein prepared to travel back to his homeland.  While he originally intended to depart early in May, there was a delay.  The 3 June issue of the Los Angeles Express reported that “he has leased his gallery to Messrs. Tuttle and Lee for two years” as he made his plans.  Incidentally, another article in that edition showed that Wolfenstein was a one of seven trustees in the Los Angeles Petroleum Refining Company, formed by F.P.F. Temple in 1873 to drill for oil in the mountains in what is now Santa Clarita.

While he was delayed in leaving for Europe, Wolfenstein was able to secure a choice assignment in taking a portrait of notorious bandido Tiburcio Vásquez, who was captured in May in what is now West Hollywood by a posse sent out by Sheriff William R. Rowland, whose late father co-owned the Rancho La Puente with William Workman.  One of Vásquez’ last crimes was the robbery of rancher Alessandro Repetto in today’s Monterey Park and Repetto’s son was sent to the Temple and Workman bank for $800 to turn over to the bandit chieftain.  Temple alerted Rowland, who headed to Repetto’s ranch in the hills just north of the modern 60 Freeway, but Vásquez, tipped off by the fearful young Repetto, escaped.  The image was taken in back of the jail on Spring Street and Vásquez was reported to have wanted to sell the portraits to raise funds for legal fees.

Wolfenstein portrait
A Wolfenstein self-portrait.

Finally, in late June, Wolfenstein departed for Stockholm, but his projected two year trip was considerably shorter as he was back in Los Angeles and operating his gallery by early November.  The following spring, a short feature in the Express stated that “Wolfenstein is not merely a photographer.  He is an artist.  His studios are fitted up as lavishly as Brady’s [Mathew Brady was a renowned photographer in New York and best known for his dramatic images of Civil War battle sites].”  Moreover, it was averred that “the work exhibited buy him is not to be surpassed in this country.”

Referring to the photographer by his nickname the paper stated that

“Wolf” says that the only place he ever struck in the world where photography is a healthy pursuit is Los Angeles.  There is something in our atmosphere which counteracts the chemical  and sedentary drawbacks of the business.

Yet, by September 1875, the boom in the City of Angels went bust amid an economic panic in California, which included the suspension of the Temple and Workman bank, there were reports that Wolfenstein sold his gallery to Francis Parker, who practiced the trade in San Diego.  The deal apparently did not take place, though Parker did open his own studio in Los Angeles and worked there during the last few years of the decade.  The Homestead has about a dozen Parker photos in its collection and a few have been featured in this blog.

Los Angeles Express, 3 June 1874.  Note the two references—at left, his impending trip back home to Sweden and, at right, his trusteeship with F.P.F. Temple’s fledgling oil company.

A week after this premature report, though, Wolfenstein got into some legal hot water, after he struck a former employee in a dispute “about money matters” and was arrested by a police officer.  In those days, minor criminal matters were heard before the mayor and Prudent Beaudry heard testimony from Officer Twomey about the incident, with Wolfenstein yelling out that Twomey was a liar.

While the photographer was fined $15 for striking his ex-worker, he was not punished for his comment about the officer, but when the two left Beaudry’s office, Twomey struck Wolfenstein twice.  Another officer then filed a complaint against his compatriot, while Wolfenstein did the same with another justice of the peace, with the bizarre outcome that Twomey was found guilty of the same offense in two different justice courts!  The officer was soon removed by the city council, which included William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, among its members.

Express, 29 March 1875.

While the Express often wrote glowingly of Wolfenstein’s photographic artistry, the Los Angeles Herald took a distinct disliking to him, writing in one account of the Twomey incident that police officers had to have some recourse against “the insults of men worth $20,000 as well as from those of the loafer or hoodlum.”  Later, the paper issued a biting rejoinder about “one Wolfenstein, an amateur photographer [!], whom a man about the size of a chimpanzee slapped in the face on the Oakland ferry boat some months ago and found no resistance,” adding that “we have heard more than one person say they would not believe [Wolfenstein] under oath.”

In November, however, the Express offered more fulsome praise of Wolfenstein, though it recorded his name as “Victor” in so doing.  The paper gushed that he “advanced photography in Los Angeles to a status not surpassed on the American continent” and that the gallery “is on a scale such as is seldom surpassed even in a metropolitan city.”  Particularly highlighted was the fact that “his skill in enlarging photographs is quite remarkable.”  It was also asserted that “the magnitude of the business done by Wolfenstein would excite the surprise of an Eastern visitor” because the work done by him was up to six times what would be found in cities twice the size back east.

Express, 10 November 1875.

In fact, the piece observed that the gallery contained “a dozen or so rooms devoted to his business and to the comfort of his patrons.”  The “main salon is hung round with splendid specimens of the art photographic.”  It concluded by claiming that “in every respect this gallery is a credit to Los Angeles” and advised visitors to pay a visit “in order that they may see upon what a thorough scale everything relating to art is pitched in our city.”

Another Express testimonial came in October 1877 when the paper called attention to an exhibit at the city’s Fine Art Hall, where “we have never seen more highly finished and creditable productions of the camera” so that the display “alone forms almost an art gallery” with its arrangement of “counterfeit presentiments,” a strange term for a photo!  The article concluded by proclaiming, “if there is a branch of the Exposition of which our people may reasonably feel proud it is in the high-art photography of Mr. Wolfenstein.”

Express, 8 October 1877.

Wolfenstein’s other endeavors, aside from his role with Temple’s petroleum company, which floundered with the failure of the Temple and Workman bank, included his serving on a committee, in 1877, to organize a joint-stock company for the formation of a “first-class theatre” in Los Angeles.  Others involved were the prominent doctor and real estate developer John S. Griffin, Dr. Joseph S. Kurtz, Thomas Mott (a former county clerk and member of the state Assembly), and prominent merchant Constant Meyer.

Trouble, however, arose again the following year.  In February 1878, the photographer married Olga Wagner, who, although just fifteen, had already been married, at twelve, and divorced.  She was a relative of John Lazzarovich, a native of Croatia, a merchant and a founder, with William H. Workman and banker Isaias W. Hellman, of Boyle Heights, and came to Los Angeles from Australia where she born and raised.

Herald, 16 August 1878.

Yet, in May, just a few months after the nuptials, Wolfenstein filed for divorce from the young woman described by the Herald as a “piquant and pretty brunette.  Late in June, Mrs. Wolfenstein went to the paper to complain about how the Los Angeles Star portrayed her in print because it stated she told it that she was going to San Francisco to marry someone else.  She claimed she stated to the Star that it might as well report that because of its treatment of her and her mother and deprecated other statements made in the press about her.

In mid-August, Olga filed a criminal complaint in the justice court claiming that Wolfenstein committed assault and battery on her.  There was a closed hearing, after which, “at the solicitation of Mrs. Wolfenstein, no fine was imposed, but the defendant was bound over in the sum of $250 to keep the peace for six months.”  When “R. Lazarovitch,” said to be her brother-in-law, though it had to be a blood relation because that was her maiden name, filed a complaint on the same allegation, Wolfenstein was fined $5.

Express, 27 December 1878.

The bitter divorce and assault allegation evidently drove Wolfenstein to flee Los Angeles and, at the end of 1878, the Express reported that William N, Tuttle, one of the lessees of the gallery when Wolfenstein was in Europe four years before, formed a partnership with Henry T. Payne, another pioneer photographer in the City of Angels, “and that the new firm will shortly assume control of the Wolfenstein gallery.”  Payne then joined forces with his brother, Daniel, and Thomas E. Stanton to form Payne, Stanton and Company, which existed through the first part of the 1880s.

Wolfenstein returned to San Francisco and, in spring 1879, after his estranged wife sought $3,000 a year in alimony, a substantial sum, and other costs, he refiled a divorce suit with a prominent judge as his counsel.  This strategy proved successful and Wolfenstein was granted a divorce and any financial claims Olga sought were rejected.  She married bookkeeper Herman Brandenstein in 1880, moved to New York four years later, and took up the name “Olga Brandon.”  She divorced for the third time, moved to London, and became a popular stage actor into the 1890s, though tuberculosis cut short her dramatic career and, in 1906, her life.

Los_Angeles_Herald_Tue__Aug_12__1879_ (1)
Herald, 12 August 1879.

Wolfenstein, however, had more legal woes to contend with as, in 1879, he was tried twice in San Francisco’s criminal court on charges of taking obscene photographs of a young woman through the instigation of a sewing machine salesman.  The first trial ended with a hung jury, with seven voting for conviction and five for acquittal, but the second trial ended in his exoneration after his lawyers successfully argued that he was being extorted after he refused to partake in the scheme to take the images for profit for the three parties.

By 1881, Wolfenstein clearly had enough of the Golden State and returned to the east coast, though legal troubles followed.  While in New York that February, the photographer was robbed of $2,000 by two men.  At the end of the year, there was another case in which Wolfenstein sued a man to recover funds for the conversion of 100 half-dollar pieces, eleven $20 pieces of Mexican currency, and 16 Peruvian $20 coins.  In this matter, the photographer prevailed and over $600 was awarded to him by a court in New Bedford, his home from years before and to which he resettled.

Wolfenstein ad New Bedford MA 1883
The 1883 New Bedford, Massachusetts city directory listed the photographer as “Valentine Von Wolfenstein”, with the “von” generally used for nobility.

In 1884, Wolfenstein married again to Philopena Henrietta Brown, another young woman with whom he had a daughter, but two years later she filed for divorce, which was granted on the grounds of “cruel and abusive treatment.”  The photographer tied the knot with Clara Brown, who was in her late teens, and the couple had two sons.  Wolfenstein took his family to Mexico and Guatemala, where he operated photo studios and, after his wife died, he and his sons went to Stockholm.  There he worked for the royal photographer and then operated his own studio before he bought the royal photographer’s business, which had some thirty employees.

In 1905, Wolfenstein sold the studio and presumably was well-off, because the next year, he was in Anniston, Alabama looking after his fruit orchard investments with a partner.  The Birmingham News of 9 November 1906 reported that he and his sons, who were in schools in Sweden, were traveling to Florida and then to Japan as part of a tour around the world.

Birmingham [Alabama] News, 9 November 1906.
Wolfenstein was in Cuba in 1907 for business purposes and on a passenger list on a ship sailing from England to New York in August 1908, after wihch he returned, after nearly thirty years, to Los Angeles.  He died there just months later, in February 1909, and was interred at Rosedale Cemetery.

A photographer’s life, especially in a frontier town like 1870s Los Angeles, could be difficult, but Valentine Wolfenstein’s story is remarkable, including his emigration to the United States as a young man; his military service; his wandering from Massachusetts to New Mexico and then to California; his years in the City of Angels; his legal woes and migration back to the East Coast; his return home to Stockholm for roughly fifteen years; and more wandering in America and Central America until he came back to Los Angeles for his final days.

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