Dear Friends in Winter

Robert F. Laatsch, [Two Unidentified Men], ca. 1905

As winter sets in, it’s time to break out the heavy sweaters and woolen caps, and light up a cigar, like these two handsome swains from chilly central Wisconsin, circa 1905. There is a rugged directness in their gazes and a tender affection in the way the fellow with the pale eyes gently touches the shoulder of the bearded man. We will never know the true story of the two men and the nature of their friendship, but we did turn up a bit of new information about the mysterious photographer, identified on this cabinet card simply as “Laatsch, Merrill, Wis.” In David Deitcher’s book Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918, which accompanied an ICP exhibition of the same name in 2001, this picture is cited as “Photographer unknown.” It turns out that Robert F. Laatsch (1873-1925) was hard to identify because he was only briefly active as a studio photographer in Merrill, Wisconsin. He was born in Wausau, Wisconsin, on February 8, 1873, the third son of Prussian immigrants; his father, Frederich Laatsch, was a common laborer. As a young man, Robert Laatsch was also a laborer; he was described in the 1900 U.S. census as a twenty-seven-year-old laborer in a door factory. By that time he had also been married to the former Emma A. Walters for two years and had a one-year-old son, Harold. It is unknown why or how Laatsch took up a camera, but in 1905 he was suddenly listed as a photographer in the Wisconsin state census. By 1910, however, he had returned to factory work and, later, he was employed as a gas maker as a steel plant. Laatsch died at age fifty-two in Saint Louis, Minnesota, on May 27, 1925, apparently never returning to the practice of photography.

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