More on CC Lyon, the traveling photographer of the West Indies

Laurie A Perkins posed in Harper’s studio – Photographed in Tallahassee Florida between 1885 and 1910 – State Library and Archives of Florida; public domain image

Looking at period newspaper notices concerning the Victorian photographer Carl Constantine Lyon, I’ve learned a bit more about his photography business and life. CC Lyon created images of the landscape of the West Indian island of St Kitts, but apparently relied largely on income from taking portraits of Kittitians, as well as the inhabitants of nearby islands. He also spent several periods of his life living in Brooklyn, NY.

Some of portrait photographers of the late 1800s in the West Indies seemed to follow a similar model – they would advertise in advance that they were coming to a certain island to open a studio, then set up shop in town and stay for six months or a year. They would also post in the local papers for several months before leaving, urging patrons to rush to get their pictures taken so as not to miss a golden opportunity. An 1871 ad in the St Christopher Advertiser and Weekly Intelligencer for the “Messrs. Russell, Brothers” announced that their new studio would be open for a limited time in Basseterre, offering products like the small cartes de visite photographs, tintypes, ambrotypes, miniatures for lockets, as well as photos of estates and houses, at “reasonable prices”. The Russell brothers emphasized that they had done business in the US and Canada, and most recently in Kingston, Jamaica.

Over the period from 1876 until 1914 (the year of CC Lyon’s death), a string of notices appeared in the local papers with announcements of his comings and goings, inviting island residents to have themselves photographed. In June of 1875, he promoted the opening of a studio in Basseterre, billing himself as “C. C. Lyon, from Broadway, New York”, and promises that his prices will be moderate and his “aim to please”.

In an issue of the St Christopher Gazette of October 1876, Lyon

“Respectfully informs the inhabitants of St Kitts, that since the Gale he has been repairing his PHOTOGRAPHIC TENT, prior to his removal to a neighboring Island. He would strongly advise those who have been putting off having their PICTURES taken, to come to a decision at once, as he is bringing his business to a close, and it may be too late when they do call.”

Talk about a hard sell. The ad brings up the question of how well a tent served as a photography studio, especially during the Caribbean’s hurricane season.

In 1879, Lyon is absolutely crowing about what he seemed to think was a momentous accomplishment. He had apparently sent to Queen Victoria four photographs he had taken; a view of St Kitts with Nevis in the background, the Nevisian treasury building, the church in Nevis where Lord Nelson was married, and

“The Record of Marriage in the Parish Registrar, the page of which was marked or folded down by His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, when he visited the Island in 1861.”

The Duke of Edinburgh at that time was the second son of Victoria and Albert. The article triumphantly concludes that Sir Henry F. Ponsonby (the queen’s private secretary) wrote back to Lyon that he had “received the Queen’s command to thank Mr. Lyon for sending the photographs”.

In 1880, 1882, and 1884, there are more notices of setting up and closing down of the studio. Similar notices from Antiguan newspapers advertise his services in the city of St Johns. By 1912, Lyon must have been slowing down , as another ad states that he is still carrying on his photographic services at his studio in Rose Mary Lane in Basseterre, although “through increasing years he is unable of himself to actively perform the work in all its stages, but he has trained Miss L Royards and she has successfully carried on the work, under his supervision, for the past three years”. He also offers “Ping-Pong Photos” to the public, which were inexpensive versions of portraits that were printed in small strips, similar to those produced today in photo booths.

CC Lyon died in 1914, in Rosemary Lane, with the cause of death recorded as arteriosclerosis. He had a long career in his chosen field, spanning decades and many miles of travel.

Sources

  1. The British Newspaper Archive, 2023
  2. Ping Pong Photos: An Introduction, Griffonage-dot-com, Patrick Feaster’s Exploration in Historic Media”, 2017

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