Online Artist Archive
b. September 13, 1888; d. June 28, 1968
Fred Hultstrand’s sixty-plus year career spanned one of the most transformative eras of the state of North Dakota. While the United States as a whole was coming into its own as a world power, North Dakota was making the difficult transition from a territory of pioneering homesteaders into a modern, fully functioning state in the union.
Hultstrand’s career as a photographer reflected this transition unlike that of any of his peers in the state. Himself born in a sod house near the small town of Osnabrock (in Cavalier County), Hultstrand soon took up a very modern art form: photography. His interest was first piqued in 1905 when he witnessed a neighbor developing photographs. He soon convinced his parents – Swedish immigrants Anders and Johanna Hultstrand – to let him build a studio and darkroom in their house.
In 1909, he served as an apprentice to Milton photographer John McCarthy for a $25 fee. McCarthy was known locally for his photographs of sod houses, a theme that would later appear in much of Hultstrand’s work.
When the apprenticeship was over in 1910, Hultstrand moved to Illinois where he studied at the Illinois College of Photography in Effingham and at the Art Institute in Chicago.
After his studies, he worked at studios in Portland, Oregon and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He eventually returned to Milton and took over the studio run by his former mentor.
In 1916, he relocated to Park River - where he permanently settled - and established his own studio. (He became something of a fixture in the community. He served on the local school board and fire department, and served several terms as mayor. He was president of the local Commercial Club and a member of the Odd Fellows. Additionally, he belonged to the Masonic Temple for more than fifty years.)
In addition to the usual portrait work that came with his chosen profession, Hultstrand the artist took a personal interest in the changing world around him while trying to preserve the old world on its way out. As mentioned before, he often incorporated sod houses into his photographs. (For example: whenever he made group portraits of farm families that still lived in a sod house, he would often pose them in front of it.) However, he also made several photographs of streets bustling with horse-drawn buggies in nearby towns. Later, he would make images of the same streets with cars. Whenever a drastic change (such as new construction or a fire) would occur to a street that he previously made an image of, he would often return to the same location and make a new photograph with the incorporated changes. Furthermore (and with the help of his assistants Thelma and Sylvia Wick), Hultstrand experimented with color photography years before color film was available. He would take copies of his black-and-white images and would hand-tint them with painted dyes and inks. When viewed side by side, color and black-and-white versions of the same image represented a transition photography would soon be going through.
Though locally minded, Hultstrand’s work did receive national attention. In 1962, his photograph of the Milton-area sod house belonging to one John Brakken was selected to appear on a postage stamp marking the centennial of the Homestead Act. Additionally, his work has been acknowledged in written messages from former president Lyndon Johnson, former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, former North Dakota governor William L. Guy, former U.S. senators from North Dakota Milton Young, Quentin Burdick, and Mark Andrews. In 1965, he was awarded a bronze plaque from the Professional Photographers of America, Inc., which was one of the highest honors a photographer could receive at the time.
As the last years of his life approached, Hultstrand slowed in his photographic work. However, he made one significant trip to photograph a sod house in 1964. Traveling to the small town of Grassy Butte in the western part of the state, he made a photograph of the sod house that was still being used as a post office at the time.
He died on June 28, 1968 at a hospital in Grand Forks. He was survived by his wife Evangeline (Baker) and their daughter Donna Jean Verwest. Also surviving were a daughter-in-law, four grandchildren, and his brothers Mandus, Bernard, Andy, and Alfred. He was preceded in death by his son Victor (who died in a plane crash in Florida while serving in the military), by his sister Annie, and by his parents.
Most of his photographs are housed at the Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota State University in Fargo.
- Ben Nemenoff
Bonham, Kevin. “Pioneer Photographer.” Grand Forks: North Dakota Weekly, July 23, 1996.
“Fred Hultstrand: The Life Story of North Dakota’s Most Prolific Photographer.” Fargo: Institute for Regional Studies (North Dakota State University), 1996.
“Well Known Park River Photographer Died Friday.” Grafton: The Walsh CountyRecord, July 1, 1968.
State Historical Society of North Dakota
*Image courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (#0655-15).