Gifford Photographic Collection

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Biographical Note

The Gifford Family is considered Oregon's first family of photography. Beginning in about 1890, when Benjamin A. Gifford emigrated to Portland from Kansas, they began a photographic tradition that lasted into the 1950s and spanned three generations. Benjamin A. Gifford worked as photographer in Portland and The Dalles, Oregon, from the late 1880s until about 1919, when his son Ralph took over his studio in Portland. In 1936, Ralph became the first photographer of the newly established Travel and Information Department of the Oregon State Highway Department, a position he held until his death in 1947. After her husband's death, Wanda Muir Gifford took over the family's photography business and continued to take and sell photographs through the mid-1950s. Ben L. Gifford, the son of Ralph I. and Wanda Gifford, joined his mother in the family's business in early 1950s and also worked for a Salem photography studio from 1951 until 1955. Three generations of Gifford photography began to come to a close when Ben took an engineering job with the State Highway Commission in 1955.

Benjamin A. Gifford

Benjamin A. Gifford

Benjamin A. Gifford (1859-1936) was born in DuPage County, Illinois. After briefly attending Kansas Normal College, Benjamin worked for two years as an apprentice in a Ft. Scott, Kansas, photo gallery. He finished his apprenticeship in Sedalia, Missouri, under William LaTour, and then returned to Fort Scott to become a partner in a photo studio. Benjamin married Myrtle Peck in 1884; he and his wife moved to Portland, Oregon, in about 1890 and by 1891 had started a photo studio across the street from the Hotel Portland. He was the first photographer in Portland to use electric lights for making enlargements. In 1897, Benjamin moved to The Dalles and operated a studio there for several years, though he maintained strong ties to the Portland area. Gifford returned to Portland in 1910. His son Ralph I. Gifford took over operation of the studio around 1920. After his first wife died in 1919, Benjamin married Rachel Morgan, who had worked in his photography studio for several years. They moved to Clark County, Washington, soon after turning over the photography business to Ralph and settled in a home they called "Wa-ne-Ka," named after his famous photograph, "Sunset on the Columbia." Benjamin died on March 5, 1936. Benjamin was well-known for his images of Native Americans, scenic views of the Columbia River and the Columbia River Highway, and views of central Oregon and Portland areas. He published Art Work of Oregon (1900), Art Work of the State of Oregon (1909), Art Work of Portland, Mt. Hood and the Columbia River (1912), and a view book titled Snap Shots on the Columbia (1902). In addition his work appeared in many promotional booklets issued by railroads, particularly the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company.

Ralph I. Gifford

Born in Portland, Ralph I. Gifford (1894-1947) worked in his father's (Benjamin A. Gifford) photography studio as a boy and accompanied his father on photography trips around Oregon. He married Wanda Muir Theobald in 1918 and spent the last part of World War I in the U.S. Navy. Ralph took over his father's photography business in 1919 and sold it in 1928 to go into the motion picture business with F. C. Heaton in Portland. In 1936, Ralph became the first photographer of the newly established Travel and Information Department of the Oregon State Highway Commission. His landscape views of Oregon's natural beauty were used for many years to promote tourism in the state. He also took motion pictures for the Highway Commission, including its 1941 color version of The New Oregon Trail, which was shown in every state in the U.S., and Glimpses From Oregon State Parks, released shortly before Ralph's death on June 23, 1947. His obituary, published in several Oregon newspapers in late June 1947, stated that "more than any other person, he is responsible for the tourist business in Oregon being an $83,500,000 business." Ralph also took and sold photographs commercially; many of his commercial views were taken at the same time as his Highway Commission photos. His photographs could be purchased as postcards, view sets, individual prints, and photo-plaques. In a letter to the managing editor of U.S. Camera magazine, Ralph stated in 1943 that his work was "to visually educate the traveling public as to Oregon's scenic and vacation possibilities."

Wanda Gifford

After Ralph Gifford's death in 1947, his wife, Wanda Muir Gifford (1894-1989) took over the family's photography business. Wanda, born in Florin, California, was a 1916 Oregon Agricultural College home economics graduate. She taught home economics in the Portland schools for several years. Ralph and Wanda Gifford had two sons, Ralph Arthur Gifford, who attended Oregon State College before his death in 1939, and Ben L., who carried on the family's photographic tradition for a third generation. Wanda took and sold photographs from 1947 through the mid-1950s. Largely self-taught in photography, she worked primarily on weekends -- in addition to her job with the County Clerk's office in the Marion County Courthouse. "As Mr. Gifford preferred to photograph landscapes, I am very much interested in child photography," she wrote to a magazine editor about a year after Ralph's death. "With all those fine cameras and a complete laboratory left me I must carry on." Wanda also took many photographs of agriculture subjects, and as Ralph had done, marketed the family's photographs to trade publications, such as American Fruit Grower and U.S. Camera magazines, newspapers, advertising firms, and corporations. Wanda retired from the Marion County Clerk's office in 1958 and lived in Salem for most of the remainder of her life. She died in Sublimity, Oregon, in 1989.

Ben L. Gifford

Ben L. Gifford (1923-1996) was born in Portland, Oregon, the son of Ralph I. and Wanda Gifford, and graduated from Salem High School in May 1942. He attended Oregon State College as an engineering student in the fall of 1942 and then entered the U.S. Navy. Ben spent 23 months in the South Pacific working as an aircraft mechanic during World War II; he married Beth Greenlee in 1946. In 1946-1947, he took classes at the Vanport Extension Center in Portland and returned to Oregon State College in the fall of 1947, where he completed his BS in Business & Technology in 1950. Ben studied photography at the Fred Archer School of Photography in Los Angeles in 1950 and 1951 and in May 1951 began helping his mother with the family photography business. Ben also worked as a photographer for the Jesten-Miller Studio in Salem, Oregon, from 1951 to 1955. In the family's photography business, Ben specialized in agricultural photography, particularly of the Willamette Valley's renowned agricultural resources. As his grandfather, father, and mother had done previously, he frequently visited and photographed the Mt. Hood area, particularly Timberline Lodge and its recreational activities. Three generations of Gifford photography began to come to a close when Ben took an engineering job with the State Highway Commission in 1955. He worked there for 27 years, retiring in 1982. Ben died in August 1996 in Bend.

The collection includes notable images of the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, the Pendleton Round-Up, and Timberline Lodge taken by Ralph, Wanda, and Ben L. Gifford. They also photographed Crater Lake, Multnomah Falls, and the Silver Falls State Park. Images of Portland, Salem, and Corvallis are included in the collection, as well as many rural scenes in the Willamette Valley, especially Marion County.