No discussion about Catskill Mountain photography would be complete without mention of Richard Lionel De Lisser, author of two late 19th century photographic surveys of Greene and Ulster Counties. Combined, they contain over 1,600 over photographs, mixed among the author’s writings, that highlighted his rambles in search of the picturesque. Part guidebook, part photo-documentary, both volumes vividly capture the essence of late 19th century life in the Catskills.
De Lisser was born in 1849 in New York City to Richard Lindo and Elizabeth Mary De Lisser. Although not much is known about his early years, it is known that he studied art in Germany. He achieved a small amount of fame for his paintings, several of which sell today for thousands of dollars. But it is his photographic work in the Catskills for which he his most remembered and would become, perhaps, his lasting legacy.
Beginning in the summer and fall of 1893, De Lisser tramped the countryside of Greene County searching for the picturesque. He traveled extensively on his buggy pulled by his faithful companion, his horse known as Cherry-Tree. The culmination of these ramblings was the first of his photographic surveys, Picturesque Catskills: Greene County. It was published in 1894 by the aptly named Picturesque Publishing Company. The work contains over 600 black-and-white photographs and illustrations of the people and places of the county.
The second photographic survey was Picturesque Ulster, which was originally published in eight numbered parts between 1896 and 1905. (The 1960s reprinted version combines all eight parts in to one volume.) It was published by the Styles and Bruyn Publishing Company and contained over 1,000 black-and-white photographs and original illustrations. Each section was sold to regional tourists for 75 cents. Picturesque Ulster focused on the city of Kingston, townships of Denning, Hardenburgh, Hurley, Olive, Shandaken, Woodstock and the village of Saugerties. A second volume focusing on the southern section of Ulster County was planned but was never completed.
The people and occupations typical of the era are all vividly represented: farmers, lumbermen, railroad men, bluestone quarry workers, summer boarders, hikers and blacksmiths. The places are also diligently captured: scenic views, grand hotels, boarding houses, churches, barns, farm houses, Main Street business districts and so on. The photographs have stood the test of time as one of the most comprehensive collections ever taken of the Catskills region. Alf Evers, the noted Catskills historian, writes in the introduction of the reprinted version: “Nothing else ever written about Ulster County has anything like the transporting power of Picturesque Ulster.”
For many years both Picturesque Catskills and Picturesque Ulster were long out of print, being found only in the hands of the lucky few. Fortunately, both volumes have been reprinted in recent years, first in the 1960s and then again in 2006 and 1998, respectively, by Hope Farm Press. Today, they are now available to any student of Catskills region history or photography. Enjoy the step back in time to the late 19th century!