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. Throughout this page we will use photos and text from Mary Bennett’s fine article, The Man Behind the Camera: Fred W. Kent, published in The Palimpsest in 1994.
Frederick Wallace 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.
By the time Fred 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 primary photographer for University events – a role he enjoyed until his retirement 50+ years later!
The SUI Sports Complex on the Iowa River – Iowa Field with the Baseball Stadium (upper middle) and the Armory (upper right).
During these 50+ years, Fred photographed everyday scenes and the extraordinary, going far beyond his day-to-day work with graduation photos and sporting events. Click here to see a larger selection of Fred’s work from the 1910’s to the 1970’s.
Many people think of Fred W. Kent as an artistic photographer, but there was so much more inside this guy’s head. Over the years, Fred’s technical and artistic photo abilities proved to be important at SUI in medical, engineering, biology and ornithology research.
The Daily Iowan newspaper (below) reports 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 Fred created, there are two that have found lasting prominence in University of Iowa football history. The first is from 1921 and features the All-American Hawkeye trailblazer – Duke Slater.
In 2021, the University named the playing field at Kinnick Stadium for Slater and in the new north entrance to the stadium, artist Brett Grill has created an amazing sculpture based on Fred’s photograph taken at Old Iowa Field in 1921. Read more about Duke Slater here.
The second iconic Kent photograph came eighteen years later – in 1939 – when Fred snapped this photo (above) of Iowa’s Heisman Trophy winner – Nile Kinnick. While there are many photos of Kinnick – this one has been used the most when people talk about that famous 1939 Ironmen team that ruled the world of college football. Click here for more on Iowa’s Nile Kinnick.
Married for 55 years – June 16, 1917 – Fred & Clara Rebecca Hartman had four children – James A. Kent (1919-2011), Barbara (Kent) Buckley (1920-2009), Charles F. Kent (1925-2011), and Thomas H. Kent (1935-2020).
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.”
Fred Wallace Kent died, at age 90, on July 17, 1984. His wife, Clara Rebecca Hartman, died, at age 77, on August 14, 1972. Both are buried at Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City.
F.W. Kent Park – a beautiful 1,000+ acre green space located west of Iowa City – is named for Fred. In 1964 the voters of Johnson County approved the establishment of the Johnson County Conservation Board (JCCB)) and the Board held its first meeting in January, 1965. In January, 1966, they allocated funds to develop their first park known as the Scott Church Area. Fred shared his knowledge of interesting properties, which would be suitable for wildlife habitat and park development, with the members of the fledgling JCCB. In March, 1966, the Board acquired 186 acres of land from Robert Larew in Section 24, Oxford Township. Then, in July, 1966, the Board moved to negotiate with L. Dwight Woods for 21.83 acres of his land, adjacent to the Larew property, for the purpose of constructing a lake on the land purchased from Larew. Since that time, the park has grown to 1,082 acres and is often simply referred to as Kent Park.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.