Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Frank Sadorus and Impermanence

Frank Sadorus with his camera. He used dry plate glass negatives and recorded extensive information about each picture he took.

From 1898 to 1912 Frank Sadorus took around 500 pictures that survive even though they were forgotten for decades.  The dry plate glass negatives had been stored in the attic of Frank Sadorus's house until found by his nephew.  In 1981 Photographer Ray Bial printed the photos and these were used to make the book, "Upon a Quiet Landscape: The Photographs of Frank Sadorus".  That was when I first heard about Frank Sadorus although I had grown up and lived just a few miles from where he took most of his pictures. 

For me what is most interesting about these photos is how they show a world that was soon to vanish.  I remember when I first saw these photos I thought I would try to visit some of the original scenes.  So far I have not been able to find any. 

The Sadorus farm no longer exists.  The former site is now a cultivated field.

I wonder if part of the motivation for Frank's photography was to try to hold on to this world?  I imagine there must have been some discussion of selling the family farm and moving into town.  It was fairly common in those days for a farmer to use the money from the sale of a farm to fund a retirement in town. The sale of the farm became a reality when Frank's father died.  The family moved into the town of Sadorus.  Frank moved into a small house on his own. He didn't last long in town and as far as I know he didn't take pictures during this time.  What he did do is manage to get himself sent to the Illinois Eastern Hospital for the Insane in Kankakee.

I remember most people around here just calling this place Kankakee.  As in "you better watch yourself or you will get sent to Kankakee".

I haven't been able to find what behavior got Frank sent away.  Sanity hearings were once a staple of the local newspapers around here, however so far I haven't been able to find anything about Frank.  All I know is that he remained at the mental hospital until the end of his life in 1934.  I read somewhere that once he did leave the hospital and started walking along the railroad tracks in the direction of home.  However he turned back to the hospital for whatever reason.

I did read where one of his nieces said she remembered visiting Frank in the hospital.  She said he was very pleasant and imaginative.  He may have adjusted to the institution and made some kind of life for himself there.  Strangely he would end up spending the majority of his adult life there. And it is striking that although it might have been possible he didn't photograph any part of this time in his life.

If you would like to read more about Frank Sadorus there is a biography and a gallery at the Illinois State Museum site.


  1. I wonder if what was considered sane then was a narrower definition than we have now.

    1. I think it probably once was. I worked in the mental health field for several years and never once went to a competence hearing. I would guess that Frank experienced some kind of severe depression after leaving the farm and may have become suicidal or maybe hostile to his family. That would have been enough to get you sent off back then. After that I wouldn't be surprised if because of his loss of identity connected with the farm if he came to accept a new identity as inmate of a mental institution.

  2. I have that book; "Upon a Quiet Landscape." The title fits it perfectly. I drive through Sadorus about once per month and always think about Frank Sadorus and the pictures taken of the surrounding area.

    1. Back in the 70's I remember the 1830's Sadorus house was still standing. The small house that Frank Sadorus lived in for a little while was also still there. I think they were torn down before the 70's were over. When the weather gets a little less windy I will ride my bike over that way and see what I can see at a slower speed.

  3. Thanks for this story

    The link to the Illinois State Museum is great

  4. Awesome story. I will check out the link.