Developing Richmond: Photographs from the Cook Studio

Experience Richmond at the turn of the 20th century through the images of local photographers George S. and Huestis P. Cook.

George S. Cook in His Studio (circa 1890)The Valentine

George Smith Cook (1819–1902)

Called “the South’s most significant early photographer,” George S. Cook was born in 1819 in Connecticut and raised in New Jersey.  As a young teen, he traveled south and eventually settled in New Orleans in about 1838. 

Though George had studied portrait painting, he became more interested in a new imaging technology: the daguerreotype, the first photographic process in which images were created on silver-plated pieces of copper.

In 1845, George became an itinerant daguerreotypist throughout the South, training other aspiring photographers everywhere he went.

George S. Cook in His Studio (circa 1890)The Valentine

In 1849, George Cook, his wife Elizabeth Smith Francisco and their children George LaGrange and Francisca settled in Charleston, South Carolina, where Cook opened a successful photography gallery. He attracted the attention of New York photographer Mathew Brady, who selected Cook to operate his Manhattan studio in 1851 while Brady toured Europe. The ambitious George not only managed Brady’s studio but also opened a competing gallery, prompting Brady to cut short his trip. George returned to Charleston where he shifted from daguerreotypes to the new wet-plate process of creating glass negatives and paper prints.

As Charleston saw the first activity of the Civil War in the spring of 1861, George Cook was there to document military activities. Most notably, Cook captured the Union’s firing on Fort Sumter during 1863 and what is thought to be the world’s first combat image taken from Fort Sumter of Union ironclad ships firing on Fort Moultrie on September 8, 1863.

Toward the end of the war, George experienced two major losses: in 1864, his wife Elizabeth died, and in 1865, most of his negatives and prints were destroyed in a fire at a storage facility in Columbia, South Carolina. Frustrated by Charleston’s stagnant business climate, George, with his second wife Lavinia Elizabeth Pratt and their children Huestis and Bessie, relocated in 1880 to Richmond, Virginia, where he purchased the studio of David H. Anderson. George continued to focus on his specialty—formal portraiture—until his semi-retirement in the 1890s and death in 1902.

Huestis P. Cook in Capitol Square (circa 1910)The Valentine

Huestis Pratt Cook (1868–1951)

Like his pioneering father, Huestis P. Cook was an innovative photographer. Soon after the Cooks moved to Richmond, Huestis joined the family business. Huestis’s first professional images are thought to have been taken at an African-American church picnic in Bon Air, a community south of Richmond where the Cooks lived. These images were some of the earliest taken by a Southern photographer depicting African Americans in realistic, non-stereotypical settings. While Huestis later created posed studio portraits of African Americans, much of his imagery showed sensitivity to the real life experiences of his subjects.

Huestis Cook, while proficient as a portraitist, preferred being in the field and documenting life around him. His taste for this type of work may have been whetted when he received a commission to photograph one of the James River plantations in 1888. By 1920, he was doing little studio portrait work. As a documentary photographer, Huestis carried out assignments for government agencies, organizations and businesses to capture the built environment of Richmond during the late-19th and early-20th centuries. He ventured into the region’s agricultural fields, tobacco factories and office buildings to capture the region’s changing economy. Huestis also photographed many of Virginia’s historic homes, some for the first time. In his later years, he took few new images, but continued to make prints from the Cook Studio’s vast inventory of negatives until his retirement in 1946. 

By the 1950s, many Richmonders had forgotten about the Cook Studio. However, soon after Huestis’s death in 1951, three events resurrected the memory of this important body of work: the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts mounted Southern Exposures, a photography exhibition featuring Cook images (1952–53); authors A. Lawrence Kocher and Howard Dearstyne published the book Shadows in Silver: A Record of Virginia 1850-1900 featuring images by George and Huestis Cook (1954); and the Valentine Museum purchased the Cook Studio’s negatives and prints from Huestis’s widow Mary Latimer Cook.

Valentine’s Meat Juice Company (early-20th century)The Valentine

When Charleston photographer George S. Cook relocated with his family to Richmond in 1880, he arrived in a city caught between the old and the new: Richmond bustled with post-Civil War construction and economic enterprise even while it held on to the antebellum social and political order.

Virginia State Capitol Building and George Washington Equestrian Monument (after 1904)The Valentine

During the decades that George and eventually his son Huestis operated the Cook Studio, the two photographers captured many aspects of this conflicted and changing city.

Picnic Near Bon Air (Late 1880s)The Valentine

The Cooks’ work also reflects the evolving role of the photographer as documentarian.  As photographic equipment became more portable, image-making moved away from formal portraits to more casual, realistic images and immediate views of the world that could only be captured outside the studio. 

100 Block W. Broad Street (early-20th century)The Valentine

The bulk of the Cook Studio’s catalog came to the Valentine in 1954.  Purchased from Huestis’s widow Mary Latimer Cook, the “Cook Collection” included glass and film negatives and photographic prints.  

Nun at Monte Maria Convent (1921)The Valentine

In 2016, Universal Leaf Foundation funded a comprehensive, multi-year cataloging and digitization of the Cook Collection. To date, more than 1,400 images of the collection’s 10,000 negatives and hundreds of prints are now viewable through the Valentine’s online collections database.

Richmond Dairy Company (after 1914)The Valentine

Long considered a “go to” collection for mid-19th to early-20th-century photographs of southern life, history and the Civil War, the Cook Collection includes images taken by George and Huestis Cook as well as negatives and prints they purchased from other Richmond photography studios.

Young Girls (late-19th century)The Valentine

Developing Richmond: Photographs from the Cook Studio highlights an important subset of the Cook Collection: images taken by the Cooks themselves during the Cook Studio’s productive years in Richmond (1880–1930). 

Hull Street (early-20th century)The Valentine

Stripping Tobacco Leaves (late-19th century)The Valentine

Hotel Richmond Rooftop Restaurant (after 1904)The Valentine

Market Vendor and Boy Scout (1921)The Valentine

Richmond City Hall (after 1894)The Valentine

Italian-Americans (early-20th century)The Valentine

St. John’s Episcopal Church (late-19th century)The Valentine

New York Restaurant (early-20th century)The Valentine

Main Street Station (early-20th century)The Valentine

Thanksgiving Tribute by Pamunkey Indians (early-20th century)The Valentine

Atlantic Coastline Railroad Bridge (after 1919)The Valentine

Gym Class at the Y. W. C. A. (early-20th century)The Valentine

Egyptian Building, Medical College of Virginia (late-19th century)The Valentine

Baseball Team at St. Emma Industrial and Agricultural Institute (early-20th century)The Valentine

James River at Bosher Dam (early-20th century)The Valentine

Mrs. John Stewart with Child and Nurse (early-20th century)The Valentine

Lubin and Bijou Theaters (early-20th century)The Valentine

Virginia Boat Club (late-19th century)The Valentine

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart from Monroe Park (after 1905)The Valentine

S. H. Hawes & Company Coal Truck (early-20th century)The Valentine

Industrial Panorama Looking South from Canal Street (1912)The Valentine

Flower Vendors at 6th Street Market (early-20th century)The Valentine

900-1100 Blocks E. Main Street, Looking North (early-20th century)The Valentine

Gates of Joseph Bryan Park (after 1912)The Valentine

Chesapeake & Ohio Train Trestle and James River and Kanawha Canal (early-20th century)The Valentine

Virginia Governor's Mansion (1880) by Cook StudioThe Valentine

Democratic Women Will Please Enroll Here (circa 1920)The Valentine

Broad Street (Union) Station (1918/1919)The Valentine

First National Bank Construction Crew (1912)The Valentine

Congregation Beth Ahabah (after 1904)The Valentine

Highland Park from Highland Park School (early-20th century)The Valentine

Wholesale Market (early-20th century)The Valentine

Chesapeake & Ohio Train along James River and Kanawha Canal (early-20th century)The Valentine

Grace Street Looking West from Allen Avenue (after 1910)The Valentine

Mule-drawn Cart (late-19th century)The Valentine

War Bond Parade on Monument Avenue (1917)The Valentine

100 Block W. Broad Street (early-20th century)The Valentine

Credits: Story

Exhibition Sponsors
Fifth Third Bank
Richmond Camera
Richmond Association of Realtors
Laura Hill Cook

Digitization Sponsor
Universal Leaf Foundation

Exhibition Curator
Laura G. Carr

Project Manager
Meg Hughes

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
United States of Culture
From Yosemite to Broadway, take a trip around the States with more than 530 American institutions
View theme
Google apps