As the old saying goes, “one picture is worth a thousand words.”
For those of us desiring to explore Our Iowa Heritage, we must give a tip of the old hat to two extraordinary men, both armed with a single camera. One strolled the streets of Iowa City during the middle part of the 19th century; the other walked, drove, and yes, even flew over our fair city during the first half of the 20th century. Together, they snapped over 60,000 pictures along the way. From daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes to modern-day black-and-white and Kodachrome film, Isaac A. Wetherby and Fred W. Kent used their keen artistic eye to give us an expansive look at the people and the places of this city we love.
Since we took an extensive look at the life and work of Isaac A. Wetherby in an earlier post, let’s continue here with Fred W. Kent – photographer extraordinaire.
Fred Wallace Kent (1894-1984).
Frederick W. Kent was born in DeWitt, Iowa on February 3, 1894. He began what he described as a “lifelong love affair with photography” when he got his first Kodak Brownie Box Camera at the age of 14. Making a darkroom in his father’s drug store and two darkrooms at home, Fred apprenticed with a local photographer and produced postcards for local communities while he was still in high school. By the time he started college at the State University of Iowa, in the fall of 1911, he was already an accomplished photographer, bringing with him an old 5×7 camera and tripod, stating, “I had to make a go of it, so I started taking pictures.”
As a student, Fred lived at the T.W. Townsend Photography Studio located on the northeast corner of Washington and Clinton streets, where he fired the furnace, took care of the cleaning, and utilized a primitive dark room in the basement.
A lover of Hawkeye football, Kent began taking pictures at Iowa Field, printing up photo postcards and selling them for a nickel apiece at a local drugstore. That enterprising decision animated his career to such a degree that Fred was designated “Official Photographer” for all SUI sporting events by his sophomore year. Following graduation in 1915, he became the official photographer for all University events – a position he held until his retirement 48 years later in 1963.
During those years, Fred photographed everyday scenes and the extraordinary, going far beyond his day-to-day work with graduation photos and sporting events.
Fred’s detailed photographs of the 1922 restoration of Old Capitol on the University of Iowa campus aided in subsequent restorations of the building, and his technical and artistic photo abilities were important in medical, engineering, biology and ornithology research.
The Daily Iowan newspaper reported on November 23, 1934, that Kent designed a new camera that quickly and inexpensively photographed material for screen projection, improving upon the Recordak machine. He pioneered the use of stereographs in medicine, producing three-dimensional pictures for doctors and in 1947, Eastman Kodak commissioned him to write the first manual for medical photography.
Fred also founded the University Photo Service, which he managed from 1947 to 1963, and also holds the honor of being the first recipient of the Iowa City Historic Preservation Commission Award (1984) for documenting the growth of the area through his photographs.
Of the tens of thousands of images he created, Fred considered his most famous to be the now ubiquitous pose of Nile Kinnick ready to pass the football, taken in 1939, the year Kinnick was named All-American and won the coveted Heisman award. Click here for more on Iowa’s Nile Kinnick.
In addition to his photography, Fred was a man of many interests including: birding, music, wireless radio, stamp collecting and gardening. He maintained thorough and methodical records of birds he observed on nearly 3,500 bird watching trips. He shared his love of birding with his son Tom, and together they published Birding in Eastern Iowa in 1975.
His interest in the natural world led to a lifetime of rambling in the countryside and canoe trips from which he “knew Johnson County inch by inch.”
F.W. Kent Park, a beautiful 1,000+ acre green space located west of Iowa City, is named for Fred. The famous photographer died, at age 90, on July 17, 1984. His wife, Clara, died at age 77, on August 14, 1972.
Married for 55 years (June 16, 1917), Fred and Clara are buried at Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City. They had four children: James A. Kent (1919-2011), Barbara (Kent) Buckley (1920-2009), Charles F. Kent (1925-2011), and Thomas H. Kent (1935-2020).
Here’s just a few classics from the W. Fred Kent photographic collection…
Circa 1925 – Fred even took pictures of Iowa City from the air!
A good portion of Fred’s photograph collection was transferred to the University of Iowa Archives and his meticulously labeled collection of family albums, travel albums, nature scenes, audio tapes, negatives, letters, diaries and his camera collection were all donated to the State Historical Society.
Which now brings us full circle. Isaac A. Wetherby in the 19th century. Fred W. Kent in the 20th. The one constant through all these years? Old Stone Capitol.
Here’s a Timeline of Photography: 1820s – 1960s – Wetherby to Kent.
|mid-1820s first experiments with early photographic techniques|
1839 daguerreotype process is made public in France
1839 the first camera, the Giroux Daguerreotype, is made commercially available
|1840s||1840s widespread use of the daguerreotype in Europe and United States|
1840 paper negative invented by William Henry Fox Talbot
1843 advent of the photographic enlarger
1845 Matthew Brady opens portrait studio in New York City
1849 advent of the twin-lens camera and the development of the stereoscopic image
1849 first images of Egypt are published and give rise to travel photography
|1851 introduction of the glass plate negative process|
1856 photojournalism is invented when images of the Crimean War are published
1861 Matthew Brady and other photographers record Civil War
|1870s||1870s U.S. Congress sends photographers William H. Jackson and Timothy O’Sullivan out West to document the American landscape|
|1880s||1880s improvements to glass plate negative process renders it easier and more convenient for photographers|
1880s general use of the gelatin silver print
1887 introduction of cellulose photographic film negative
1888 introduction of the Kodak box camera simplifies photography and casual “snapshot” photography is born
|1900s||1900 Kodak sells the $1.00 Brownie camera and makes photography widely available|
1902 Alfred Stieglitz publishes Camera Work which promotes photography as an art
|1920s||1920s advent of the carbro print – the first full-color photographic process|
|1930s||1935 development of Kodachrome film – the first multi-layered color film|
|1940s||1940s development of the color chromogenic print|
1947 Edwin Land creates the dye diffusion transfer print – commonly known as instant photography or the “Polaroid”
|1960s||1960s rise in popularity of the Polaroid camera|
1963 release of the Polaroid color camera
1963 earliest pre-cursor to the digital camera is developed at Stanford University
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Memorial Service for Martin Luther King, Jr. photo (1968), Fred Kent, Facing East and Facing West – Iowa’s Old Capitol Museum, Linzie Kull McCray & Thomas Langdon (2007) University of Iowa Press, p 12