ca. 1870–1918, negatives 1900–1918
58 8 x 10-inch glass-plate negatives, 12 carte de visites
Michael Miley (1841–1918), probably most famous for his portraits of Robert E. Lee, was a Rockbridge County native who contributed greatly to the burgeoning field of photography. After serving under General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in the Civil War, Miley moved to Staunton to study photography under J. H. Burdett, where he learned to print positive images using the albumen wet-plate process. He returned to Rockbridge County a year later and joined forces with Andrew Plecker, a traveling photographer from Lynchburg, which led to his most famous photograph: Robert E. Lee with his horse Traveller at the Rockbridge Baths.
In 1866, Miley partnered with businessman John C. Boude to open a photography studio at the corner of Main and Nelson Streets in Lexington. He purchased Boude’s half of the business in 1870, named the studio the Stonewall Art Gallery, and found his niche as a portrait photographer. Miley also photographed classes and athletic teams at Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute. In 1895 his son Henry Miley joined the photography business and renamed the studio M. Miley & Son. Around this time, Miley began experimenting with carbon printing, a process that produced a permanent print in one color. The resulting experiment led to a patent on his color process in 1902, and in 1905 Michael and Henry Miley received a medal of merit from the Franklin Institute, which honors achievement in science, engineering, and technology. It is believed that Miley produced the first color photographic prints in the United States. An estimated five hundred color prints are attributed to Miley. He never capitalized on the process because it was too expensive and time consuming, requiring imported materials.
The Library of Virginia has a collection of 58 glass-plate negatives and 12 carte de visites taken in and around Miley’s studio in Lexington. Although some of the images have been identified through crowdsourcing projects, most are unidentified. The most notable images in the collection are photographs of the singing group The Charity Nightingales and of the poet Spotswood Styles and his family.
The glass-plate negative scans are currently on Flickr (www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_virginia) and will soon be cataloged on DigiTool.