Henning Svenson, photographer; Capturing the Essence of Laramie

One of the unique things about living in Laramie is that our past, from 1905 to 1932, has been well documented by one photographer whose collection has been made available to the public.

This collection of over 750,000 negatives (4,000 digitized) was donated to the UW American Heritage Center by Anne Brande of Laramie. She is the great-great granddaughter of photographer Henning Svenson (1879-1932). His output of photos in many formats is truly unique—recording the people, places and events of Laramie during the early 20th Century.

Svenson arrived in Laramie in September of 1905 planning to set up a photo studio with his brother John, also a photographer.

Svenson (pronounced “Swenson”) placed an ad in the Laramie Republican newspaper in October, announcing “Svenson Bros. Photo Studio at Third St., next to Opera House.” A specialty of photographing home interiors and exteriors was mentioned, indicating Svenson’s life-long interest in recording the way we lived in Laramie.

The Svenson brothers, John and Henning, had established a photo studio together in Webster City, Iowa. They had grown up near Kiel, Germany where their father, originally from Sweden, had settled after marrying a German woman. Though not much is known about John’s background, it appears that he came to America first.

Henning studied art at an industrial school in Kiel, apprenticed with a German photographer from 1894-98, then went to Switzerland where he honed his skill as a photo “retoucher,” improving photos through darkroom manipulation and/or drawing on the negatives.

He attended the Paris World’s Fair in 1900 and met Aimé DuPont (1842-1900) there. The Belgian-born photographer and sculptor had set up a photo studio in New York City and Svenson worked there briefly in 1902 (the studio was being run then by DuPont’s widow) before joining his brother in Iowa.

Originally the plan was that both Svenson brothers would be involved in the Laramie studio, but John backed out and stayed in Iowa. Henning is reported to have bought out his brother for $150.  

Eastman Kodak in Denver gave him credit for supplies and “Svenson’s Photo Studio” on Third Street was launched through frequent advertising in both Laramie newspapers starting in late 1906.

Surviving letters indicate that Henning Svenson had been corresponding with a woman he met in Webster City, Marie Widmann (1881-1959). They were married in 1906.

Soon there were three daughters, Helen, Annalease and Lottie.

In 1908 the Swenson’s contracted with Jakob Berner to build a home that still stands at 720 South 10th Street. Marie saved $300 from her dressmaking to buy the lot; the house cost $3,500. Another Svenson brother, Karl, painted a mural on the parlor ceiling. The home was named the “most representative of 1908” in a local contest sponsored by the realtor’s association.   Svenson may have irritated neighbors with his prize-winning chickens and beehives, the latter given to UW when there were complaints.

The studio on Third Street was lost when there was a boiler explosion in 1910 at the Chauncy Root Opera House. Svenson relocated to a former apartment in the second story of 314 South Second Street (now Quilt Essentials). In this cramped space he washed prints in the kitchen sink and developed panoramas and enlargements in the bathtub.

He became involved in community life and was elected president of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church congregation in 1922. He was also a member of the Masons, Rotary, a community choir and was an early member of the Professional Photographers of America.

 In May of 1921 the family took the summer off and sailed to Europe and visited family in Germany. Daughter Helen became ill upon their return to New York, so Henning stayed there with her for five weeks while the rest of the family returned to Laramie. Svenson finally arrived back in Laramie to resume business on November 30, 1921.

Svenson took studio portraits, but he also took his camera and tripod out into the city and countryside to take images developed in his darkroom that he thought would be marketable as postcards. Hundreds of local photographic postcards were for sale in his studio.

By 1925 Svenson was able to build his own studio and photo finishing laboratories at the southwest corner of 3rd Street and Ivinson Avenue, with space for other businesses as well. All of the Svenson daughters helped their father in the studio as they became old enough.

Of the three daughters, Lottie was the one most interested in taking the photos; the others worked in the developing process. Lottie married Walter “Doc” Ludwig and eventually purchased the photo studio from her sister Helen who had inherited it when their father died in 1932. Lottie and Doc Ludwig renamed the business Ludwig Photo Enterprises.

The Svenson building has just had a face lift to bring it back to its original appearance, and is still owned by his great-granddaughter Anne Brande, who continues in the family tradition as a professional photographer with a studio in the Svenson building at 224 Ivinson Avenue.

Henning Svenson died at age 52.  His widow, called Mamie by the family, lived on in the family home through the early 1940’s and then moved to the Ivinson Home for Ladies until her death in 1959. 

By Judy Knight

Caption:  Undated photo of a young Henning Svenson, probably taken by himself around 1910.  As Laramie’s undisputed premier photographer, he made over a million images and developed them himself or with the aid of his three daughters who also worked in the Svenson photographic studio that continues today under the name Ludwig Studio.