In his twenties, Charles F. Conly (1846 – 1892) left Milford, MA, envisioning a career on the Boston stage, but faced continuous setbacks. While walking up Washington Street, he spotted a sign at Warren’s Studio: “Boy Wanted.” Despite being older than a boy, he applied and was hired at an unexpectedly low salary.
Chief operator Sumner B. Heald promptly began training Conly in photography. Due to the studio’s high demand, Conly swiftly transitioned from maintenance to assisting in setups and printing. When Heald left in 1874, Conly became George K. Warren’s chief assistant. Known for his quiet, courteous, and generous nature, Conly was better suited to photography than the stage, with a curiosity for technology and a love for visual artistry.
Albumen print mounted on cardboard, 6×9 inches by C. F. Conly, Boston, Massachusetts
While Conly advertised photographically-based crayon portraits, his main focus was images of posed performers in illusionist settings. He transformed the studio with back paintings, a prop wardrobe, a solarium with tropical plants, and a paper rock formation. His subjects always appeared in distinct gestures, seemingly in performance mode. By the 1890s, Conly excelled in creating children’s portraits alongside his theatrical work.
Conly’s renown came from his experiments in theatrical photography. In 1885, he used electrical illumination to capture the audience at the Bijou Theater, despite difficulties in keeping them still. He eventually succeeded and presented copies to attendees. Conly’s first stage photographs of Boston performances came in December 1890, marking the 100th performance of “Soudan.” He is particularly noted for his portraits of Frederick Douglas and Hellen Hunt Jackson.
In late 1893, Conly fell ill and battled complications for a year until his death in December 1894. The wife he left behind, J.H.C. Evanoff, took charge of the studio.
Reference: Boston Globe (15 Dec 1892) Obituary: Charles F. Conly