How Pirie MacDonald Came to be a Photographer of Men

PirieMacDonald.pngWell, we just had to find out a little bit more about Pirie MacDonald, the celebrated photographer of men who was raised in Troy, apprenticed in Hudson, and got his professional start in Albany.  These are the excerpts from a sketch in The Photographic Journal of America, Vol. 31, from October, 1894, which in turn took its information from a Times-Union article, at a time when he was starting to win prizes as a photographer.

“He was born in Chicago, January 27, 1867. Life in the metropolis of the unsalted seas did not attract him, and at an early age he was glad to remove with his parents, Dr. George and Margaret MacDonald, to Troy, N.Y. … Having shown a marked talent for portraiture, he was sent in 1883 to the studio of Frank Forshew, of Hudson, N.Y., then the most accomplished photographer in that section of the State, acquiring a proficiency in the art which could only be attained through natural aptitude supplemented by determined effort.

“In selecting as he did, in 1889, what is perhaps the most conservative city in the United States in which to go into business for himself,  Mr. MacDonald did not do so without some idea of the time and patience it would require to give him the position he desired; but a firm believer in his art as he interpreted it, fully convinced that although Albany might be slow, she would be sure to appreciate merit if time enough were given, and that such appreciation would, in the end, be worth all it cost, he went deliberately and conscientiously to work.”

 Apparently his later disdain for portraits of women (he proudly proclaimed late in life that he hadn’t “taken one picture of a woman” for 50 or 60 years) was not in play early in his career: “The artist was not long in demonstrating to delighted mothers that he could do anything he wanted to with children, from whom he won poses, and caught expressions with a facility and success that seemed like magic. The ladies too, as one by one they found him out, appreciated the all-conquering deference he appeared to pay their slightest suggestion, and went away satisfied with their pictures and not wholly out of conceit with themselves.”

He received a notable early commission in 1892 for photographs of Phelps & Kellogg’s “The Albany Rural Cemetery; its Beauties, its Memories,” (which is SO here) “which in the originals did him great credit, and which were fairly well reproduced by the gelatin process in one of the handsomest volumes ever printed in Albany.”

The preface to that book declared that, “Only twenty-seven years of age, life and the world are still all before him where to choose. It may be that he will elect to remain in Albany many years, for the field of his tilling is ripe with the harvest, it is already yielding – or he may go elsewhere; the great cities are constantly bidding higher and higher for the brightest men in photography, as in everything else; but wherever Pirie MacDonald is located it will not be very far from the head of the profession.”

Photographer of Society Belles

As is known, he didn’t stay much longer in Albany, and soon left behind women, children and headstones to become a photographer of men. The New Photo Miniature, in 1900, reprinted a write-up of MacDonald by Fra Elbertus, originally published in The Philistine.

“Mr. Pirie MacDonald, formerly of Albany, but now of New York city, is a photographer. He calls himself a Photographic Artist – and he is. He has more medals and gets higher prices than any photographer in America. His prices are as high as a church steeple. Pirie is the only man I ever knew, or heard of, who made a fortune taking photographs. He has his limit in every savings bank in Albany, owns a block of flats, and sports an automobile in the park with a bull-dog sitting beside him.

“Pirie of the Medals does not take everybody’s picture – he picks his customers. As you enter his place he sizes you up thru a peep-hole from behind the aras, and if your countenance lacks a trace of the classic, Pirie signals his assistant, and you are informed that Mr. MacDonald is in Europe and will not return for a year and a half.

“Mr. MacDonald’s specialty until recently has been Society Belles – tall, lissome beauties, proud and haughty, with a wondrous length of limb; these are the kind he liked best. And so famous is MacDonald that sitters have come to him from Rochester, Potsdam, Chambersburg, Rahway, and all the country round and gladly paid the price of one hundred simoleons for one portrait, done with that wonderful Rembrandtesque effect, & signed by the artist. Often Pirie would send the fair one home to change her dress, but if her hair needed rearranging he always attended to that himself … Women want to look pretty, and that wasn’t what Pirie cared for: he desired chicity-chic, go, biff and éclat. To this end he often had to resort to a scheme to bring the sitter out of her affected self-consciousness. ‘Look into my eyes,’ he would sometimes command; and when all else failed, Pirie would assume wrath, and declare, ‘Here you – why in tarnation can’t you do as I want you to!’ and he would clap one hand on the beauty’s head and the other under her chin and give her a few sharp turns to win’ard, and end by administering a sharp slap athwart her glutei maximus, to straighten her spine.

“By this time the woman would be simply furious and speechless with rage. Then she would sit bolt upright, ready to explode, but she was not given time to go off, for Pirie would step back three steps and shout exultantly, ‘Splendid! Hold that – hold that!’ and then he would rush forward, kiss her on the cheek and back again he would spring, crying, ‘Hold that! Hold that!’ and the bulb was pressed.

“And when all was over the artist was so penitent, so humble and beseeching in his manner, so profuse in his explanations that it was all in the interest of Art, that all was forgiven; for base ineed is that woman who is not willing to sacrifice her feelings on the altar of Divine Art. And thus did Pirie get that most wonderful ‘Salome,’ which was the wonder of the Paris Exposition, and was declared by the judges to be the strongest and most effective study in photography ever exhibited. In every line it showed such a fine feminine rage – such pride and smothered passion – that people looked at it in amazement. No one knew that Pirie had tumbled the woman’s hair in one fell grab, and had thus aroused her wrath, and then offered her insult by kissing her and so brought that fine look of burning shame and mingled rage to her proud face.

“It’s a great picture and will pay you to stop off at Albany the next time you are down that way and go to the State House and see it.

Photographer of Men

“But the Ideal continually recedes, and Pirie having the true instinct of an artist was fired with an ambition to do still better. The opportunity came, and Pirie, looking out thru the peep-hole, beheld a woman, say of twenty-eight, five feet eleven, weight one hundred and sixty. Her beautiful and abundant hair was bleached, and she had the proud and self-reliant look of one who had conquests that lay behind, and others, greater still, within her grasp. Her neat-fitting jacket and tailor-made gown showed off her fine form to advantage. The strong features were pure Greek.

“Pirie almost screamed with delight, and hastily he ordered his assistant to be gone and leave the customer to him. ‘Oh! Now we shall have a real Herodias – that Paris picture shall only be a tin-type to this. My! What a splendid tiger she is!’

“That is really all we know about the matter. The attendant improved the opportunity to go out on an errand, and when the neighbors in the law office across the hall heard the commotion and rushed out they caught the swish of skirts and got a glimpse of a tailor-made gown going down the stairway. Pirie was found, panting and helpless, in a corner of the studio, with the black cloth viciously knotted around his neck, and the tripod, camera and sitter’s throne on top of him. There was a bad scalp wound extending from one ear to the crown of his head, and it looked as though he had been struck with the lens.

“Pirie never made any statements about the matter, but now his card reads:



“Portraits of Men Only.”

Have to wonder if he used the same approach with Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.


  1. Pingback: Pirie MacDonald: Couldn’t Get Into the Mood for Women – Hoxsie!

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