John A. Mather (1829-1915) was the pioneer photographer of Pennsylvania’s Oil Region, providing pictorial coverage of this innovative nineteenth-century technology and creating the most comprehensive picture of the early growth of the oil industry that we have today..
Born in 1829 in Heapford Bury, England, the son of an English paper-mill superintendent, Mather followed his two brothers to America in 1856. His brother Robert was looking to open a paper mill in Tennessee, but John was not ready to settle down, too transfixed by the beauty of the Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio regions. After a chance encounter with a daguerreotypist that may have been John Crathen, Mather decided to pursue a career in photography. He worked mainly using the wet collodion process, creating all of his images as glass plate negatives that could be reused to create multiple prints.
Catching wind of the enthusiasm surrounding the exploding activity in the Oil Creek Valley, in 1860, Mather and his wife moved to Titusville. Mather began with a series of makeshift, traveling studios that also functioned as his dark room. He had a photographic wagon, sometimes pulled by oxen through the oil fields, that were often muddy and difficult to traverse. He also traveled down Oil Creek in a flatboat where he developed his images and from which sold his photographic views to a local audience. He pointed the camera lens at everything in the valley, from landscapes to oil rigs to the promoters, traders, and well owners.
In 1864, Mather was eventually forced to make a costly move to a new studio in the Chase & Stewart Block in Titusville. From here, he continued to document the oil boom. He even invested in some of his own oil wells, but did not turn a profit.
In his obsessive desire to capture the industry in its entirety, Mather amassed a collection of over 20,000 glass plate negatives. However, due to fires and floods that rocked the region, only 5,000 have survived, preserved in the Drake Well Museum.