Grace: Death of photographer's daughter reignites questions about famous piece
The death last week of Rhoda Nyberg, the daughter of photographer Eric Enstrom, poured light again on the famous image her father took of a white-bearded peddler bowed in prayer at a table, a photo that Nyberg famously colored.
Perhaps the big question one gets from the image seen in so many homes is who is that guy?
Turns out he is a man of mystery, of sorts, if we define mystery as something we don't know much about.
His name was Charles Wilden and two historians of the photo say nobody knows where Wilden came from, where he was born or where he died; wherever it was, it apparently was without any family.
The man behind the giant, black-shrouded camera was a Swedish immigrant who was in his early 40s when he asked Wilden to pose in his studio in Bovey, Minn., between Grand Rapids and Hibbing in the middle of the state's Iron Range and timber country.
That was about 1920. In 1926, Wilden signed over all his rights to the photo to Enstrom for $5, according to a receipt from Enstrom's family, said Lilah Crowe, executive director of the Itasca County Historical Society in Grand Rapids where the camera and the receipt and several copies of the photo are held.
Nothing else of Wilden.
"Charles fell off the map," said Crowe, who once worked in Enstrom Studio and now gives popular presentations on the photo. "We have not found where he died."
She thinks he was born in Sweden, like Enstrom, because Enstrom's children remember the two "chatting away in Swedish," Crowe said Monday.
Maybe not, says another historian of the photo.
"He remains a very, very elusive figure," said Don Boese, St. Paul, retired history professor at Itasca Community College who researched Wilden and the photo, publishing articles and a booklet on it all. "Researching him is finding all kinds of legends and all kinds of stories and more non-answers than there are answers."
"He moved to the Grand Rapids area sometime before 1920 and where he came from exactly or where his roots are, it's not possible to say," Boese said Monday. "He doesn't appear in the Minnesota census."
Many accounts date the photo at 1918. But Boese said Nyberg, born in 1917, told him she remembered seeing it taken, so he figures it was 1920 or so.
"It just appealed to people," Boese said. "Later, when Enstrom answered questions about it, he said in the wake of World War I, he was looking for something that would represent still being thankful. But Enstrom never put down a thorough account of where he was coming from so many mythologies have crept in."
Ne'er do well
Many remark on the humility the subject displays in his bowed head and the tired, penitent slump of his arms and folded hands.
Wilden had a lot to be humble about.
"He was living in a very primitive sod hut near Grand Rapids, eking out a very precarious living," Boese said. "He was going door to door selling various sundries. One was a boot-scraper. That's how Enstrom encountered him. Enstrom looked at him and Enstrom was a really good photographer and saw features in him he thought were outstanding."
The thick book on the table was not a Bible, as many think and even the receipt from Wilden describes it, but a dictionary belonging to Enstrom, Boese said.
One of the misconceptions was that the man in the photo was a pious, even saintly, Christian, Boese said. "The stories about him centered more around drinking and not accomplishing very much."
The single piece of official documentation he did find on Wilden was a divorce decree.
"Very soon after he arrived in Grand Rapids, he married a woman from Grand Rapids in 1920," Boese said. "Very soon, he and that woman divorced and she would never talk about what happened. Her descendants knew only in vague terms of that marriage."
The woman re-married and had children. Her granddaughters, in fact, visited Crowe some years ago at the Historical Society's museum in Grand Rapids.
"They asked some questions," Crowe said. "They knew their grandmother had never gotten along with him well. She was from the Deer River area."
Boese said "the story was passed down to the family that one of them put the picture up in his house and that brought severe recriminations upon him from this (ex-wife.)"
Ironically, for someone who has left no family or known history, Wilden's image in the photo brought forth countless people over the years claiming he was a relative, Crowe and Boese say.
None panned out.
A decade ago, Boese interviewed an elderly man in St. Paul who had a credible story of knowing Wilden as a young boy.
"This person remembers his house, remembers when his mother, when she was baking bread, made an extra loaf for Wilden, who very much appreciated it because he had so little."
Augsburg Fortress Press made a deal with Enstrom about 1930 to use the photograph, in Sunday school materials and a myriad of prints and photo. Enstrom had income of that his whole life, and his children after his death, although it wasn't enough to live on, Crowe said.
Boese said Enstrom, once he started making money with the photo, tried to find Wilden with no success.
"I was in Ukraine some years ago, in Kiev, walking down the street and in this window, there was that picture hanging on the wall," Boese said. "Here's a guy whose face has become famous literally the world over... a face so known of someone of who we know practically nothing."