Our Iowa Heritage: Fred W. Kent – Continuing the Photographic Tradition.

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.

Frederick (Fred) Wallace Kent was best known as a versatile and talented photographer who documented everything from family and community life to landscape and natural vistas in Iowa, particularly in Johnson County.

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.”

A young Fred Kent goes off to college.

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.

1920’s – SUI Sports Complex on the Iowa River – Iowa Field with the Baseball Stadium (upper middle) and the Armory (upper right).

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.

Circa 1920’s – a circle dance on the field south of the Iowa Memorial Union.
1925 Pentacrest.

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.

1920’s – A slide rule demonstration in the classroom.

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.

1922-Presidents Jessup and Macbride lead commencement ceremony.

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.

Nile Kinnick – 1939 Heisman Award Winner.

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.

1939 College Street.
(P-0286) Circa 1930’s Washington & Clinton Streets – looking east.
1950’s Downtown Iowa City.
1960’s University Bookstore. Click here to read more about the history of Clinton Street.
1967 – Fred enjoying the great outdoors.

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.

1967 – Fred at work in Kent Park.

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.”

1971 – Fred at a Kent Park picnic.

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…

1915 – SUI Coeds relaxing on University Square.
Circa 1918 – Duke Slater – Iowa football icon. (Click here to read more about Duke Slater)
Watch a video on the story behind the Duke Slater bronze-relief sculpture inside Kinnick Stadium. Click here to read more about Duke Slater.
1921 Iowa Avenue Bridge.
For U of I 175th Anniversary in 2022 – Fred Kent’s 1921 pic was colorized.
October 1922 – Homecoming Parade. Click here to read more about the history of Clinton Street.
1923 Mecca Parade features the cornerstone for the new Iowa Memorial Union.
1925 WSUI Radio Live Music Presentation.

Circa 1925 – Fred even took pictures of Iowa City from the air!

1927 Commencement on the Pentacrest.
1929 Old Capitol and Old Man Winter.
1930’s Pearson’s Drug Store on the corner of Linn & Market Streets.
1936 Women’s Rifle Team.
1939 Iowa City Centennial Celebration.
1947 SUI Centennial Celebration with IMU waiters presenting the birthday cake.
Early 1950s – Downtown traffic.
1956 Homecoming with Herky.
1970 Peace Protests on Campus.

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.

1972 Old Stone Capitol.

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.

April 1865 – Memorial Service for President Abraham Lincoln, photographed by Isaac A. Wetherby.
November 1963 – Memorial Service for President John Kennedy, photographed by Fred W. Kent.
April 9, 1968 – Memorial Service for Martin Luther King, Jr., photographed by Fred Kent.

Click here to read more about these three iconic moments of mourning…

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
1840s1840s 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
1870s1870s U.S. Congress sends photographers William H. Jackson and Timothy O’Sullivan out West to document the American landscape
1880s1880s 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
1900s1900 Kodak sells the $1.00 Brownie camera and makes photography widely available
1902 Alfred Stieglitz publishes Camera Work which promotes photography as an art
1920s1920s advent of the carbro print – the first full-color photographic process
1930s1935 development of Kodachrome film – the first multi-layered color film
1940s1940s development of the color chromogenic print
1947 Edwin Land creates the dye diffusion transfer print – commonly known as instant photography or the “Polaroid”
1960s1960s 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

DYK-February 28, 2022

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

University of Iowa Libraries: Iowa Digital Library website

Early Iowa City Photography on Display at Old Capitol Museum, Erin Jordan, Cedar Rapids Gazette, October 24, 2017

Old Gold Through Fred Kent’s Lens: Images of UI History, David McCartney, The Spectator, May 2010

Old Gold: Duke Slater the Hawkeye Trailblazer, David McCartney, Iowa Magazine, September 2, 2019

Frederick W. Kent, ArchivesSpace, University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections

Who was F.W. Kent? Johnson County, Iowa Conservation webpage

Frederick Wallace Kent, Find-A-Grave

An Introduction to Photographic Processes, New York Public Library

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

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