Submitted by Elaine Everett
Nathan Coombs founded the town of Napa California in the year 1847. And with the invention of the camera in 1841 and photo-journalism getting its start from 1848 to 1865, the Napa Valley with its naturally beautiful mountains, hills, and waterways was ready for the focus of photographers’ lenses. This article highlights five photographers who have made their mark on Napa County’s history through their photographic work.
Mark Hopkins Strong
Mark H. Strong was born in Oakland, California in 1862 and arrived in Napa in 1886. He opened a photography studio at the corner of Third and Main Streets downtown. Strong photographed the Napa Valley for forty years, in addition to working in commercial photography, until he retired in 1924. After retirement, Strong continued with photography until his death in 1945. He is notable for documenting changes in the Napa Valley as technological and social environments were changing. Some of his famous shots of the Napa State Hospital circa 1905, capturing the imposing architecture and vast grounds. Similarly, this panorama taken from the cupola of the Courthouse looking Southeast shows a view of Main Street in 1887.
J. G. Brayton
While photographic artist J. G. Brayton was a portrait photographer with a studio on Napa’s Main Street, he also photographed a fine and extensive series about the Geyser and Napa areas. White Sulphur Springs in St. Helena was the subject of many of his photographs. Brayton worked in the Napa Valley from the 1860s to 1900. He photographed the Juarez family, Briggs family, and some members of the Coombs family, as well as an early aerial photograph of the city of Napa circa 1900 and his studio produced many stereoscopes, some of which are in the Napa County Historical Society Collection.
Charles B. Turrill and Charles O. Miller opened a commercial photography firm in San Francisco in 1900. Turrill became particularly interested in the Napa Valley and was also appointed as the secretary of California’s Viticultural Commission. He began to photograph the Napa area for the prosperity of historical preservation. In 1921, he said “California is my greatest hobby. I am fighting to preserve the history of California; for the accuracy of historic records.” Some of his subjects in Napa included A. B. Spreckels Stock Farm, Miravalle vineyard and winery on Spring Mountain, and the Greystone Winery archway.
William Garnett moved to Napa in 1958 as a well-established photographer whose works were shown and collected by several museums across America. Aerial photography was Garnett’s specialty and he had reverence for the unique beauty of land as viewed from the air. While Garnett photographed in a number of countries and all across American lands, the beauty of the Napa Valley was special to him. He lived in his Napa Valley home until his death in 2006.
Charles “Chuck” O’Rear
Charles O’Rear shot what is arguably one of the best known photos the world over when he captured a sunny rolling hillside between Napa and Sonoma counties. The photo, entitled “Bliss,” was used by Microsoft computer company as the default desktop wallpaper for Windows XP. O’Rear’s photographic career is far-reaching and included work for National Geographic magazine, for which he photographed in 30 countries and in every state in the U.S. In 1978 National Geographic sent O’Rear to Napa where he gained an appreciation for Napa winemaking. Ten books on winemaking have been written, produced and photographed by O’Rear over the years. O’Rear and his wife Daphne Larkin continue to live in St. Helena today.
California’s Napa Valley has been photographed by people from all over the world. Other noted photographers of the valley include Harry Drinkwater, Pirkle Jones, Nellie and Birdie Ganter, Burrell E. Wilson, and I. C. Adams.
To learn more about photography in Napa Valley, be sure to visit the Goodman Library on First Street in Napa where the exhibit “The Presence of the Past” is currently on display. This exhibit will end in September of 2021.
Kernberger, David and Kathleen Kernberger. 1978. Mark Strong’s Napa Valley 1886-1924. St. Helena, California: Historic Photos, Publishers.
Dillon, Richard H. 2004. Napa Valley Heyday. San Francisco: Book Club of California.