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Amazing Grace

Photograph still inspires 100 years after creation

Eric Enstrom. Contributed photo

We see it everywhere—in homes, museums, official buildings, restaurants, churches, billboards, advertisements, and the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office. It has been spotted in Europe, Afghanistan and Costa Rica. A saintly, gray-haired old man gives thanks for a simple meal, his Bible and glasses on the table. It’s called Grace, and most people think it’s a painting. It is, in fact, a photograph, taken in 1918 by Bovey photographer Eric Enstrom. He is quoted as saying, “I wanted to take a picture to show people that even though they had to do without many things because of the war, [World War I] they still had much to be thankful for, even in the face of hardship.”

“He was a professional,” said Enstrom’s grandson, Grand Rapids attorney Kent Nyberg. “He brought it to the annual photographer’s convention shortly after he took it, and apparently, it wasn’t well received. But he tweaked it a bit, and it came to be what it is today.” Now it’s Minnesota’s and probably the country’s most familiar and best-loved picture.

Eric Enstrom, a 15-year-old immigrant from the small town of Garsas in Dalarna, Sweden, came to the United States around 1890. His fare was paid by a southern Minnesota family who needed a farm hand. Once his debt was paid off, he went to Minneapolis to work at the Pillsbury Flour Mill. In 1900 he attended the Minnesota School of Photography and also studied optometry, since the school was in the same building. He worked at photography studios in Minneapolis, Milaca, and Foley and eventually built his own studio in Bovey. When it was destroyed in a block-long fire, he promptly rebuilt. He and his family lived upstairs.

Enstrom’s panoramic camera. Photo by Jean Paschke

As his business grew, he became known for his family portraits, pictures of weddings, and the like. He documented the historic changes in Bovey and sold landscapes of Iron Range areas. He photographed politicians and other local notables, including the theatrical Gumm Sisters, whose youngest member changed her name to Judy Garland. Perhaps he was influenced in his artistic approach by the tasks he did as a youngster when he swept the studio of Anders Zorn, a well-known Swedish artist and etcher whose work stressed forceful characterizations.

Over the years, Enstrom frequently met with Charles Wilden, a Swedish native like himself, who, with his dog, tramped from Grand Rapids to Bovey and other small towns sharpening knives and selling a line of kitchen gadgets and boot scrapers, a necessity in towns with unpaved streets. One day in 1918, he gave Wilden lunch and then asked him to pose at a wooden table with a bowl of gruel, a loaf of bread, a knife, his glasses, and a Bible. They chatted in Swedish, Wilden bowed his head, Enstrom set off his flash, and history was made.

When the Minnesota Photographers Association disparaged Grace, saying it had no light source, Enstrom added a window to the left side which let a faint light filter into the setting.

Lilah Crowe, executive director at the Itasca County Historical Society in Grand Rapids, with Grace. The museum has put together a special display honoring the 100th anniversary of the print. Photo by Jean Paschke

“You can see in the original there’s no light source,” said Lilah Crowe, executive director of the Itasca County Historical Society, which is currently mounting an exhibit in honor of Grace’s 100th anniversary. “He created a light source and changed the hair a bit.” In the days before Photoshop, the negative itself had to be altered, but Enstrom was up to the task. Airbrushing was available at the time, and perhaps that was the technique he used. Nyberg pointed out a picture in the exhibit showing two men facing each other across a table, both of them Enstrom. A diorama and pictures taken by Enstrom and his panoramic camera are also on display.

Visitors to Bovey who saw Grace in Enstrom’s studio window began buying the sepia or black and white pictures. As soon as one sold, Enstrom would print another. But it didn’t become really popular until his daughter, Rhoda Nyberg, hand painted it.

Nyberg, who had studied fashion design, was a well-known Iron Range artist who helped her father in his studio, and although she modestly refused to take credit for her work on Grace, it is accepted that the picture wouldn’t be what it is today without her. She continued to colorize it for the rest of her life, and the professional association hung it proudly thereafter. In later times, it inspired older people to take the same pose with their family Bible and loaf of homemade bread.

Kent Nyberg, of Grand Rapids, stands next to Grace at the Itasca County Historical Society. Enstrom is Nyberg’s grandfather. Photo by Jean Paschke

Enstrom sold his copyright in the 1920s to Augsburg Publishing, now Augsburg Fortress, which continues to sell reprints. Today it’s in the public domain. Enstrom retired and sold his studio to his nephew, Roger Angstrom, who sold it eventually to a non-family member. As for Wilden, who had been paid a modest sum for modeling, he sold his rights to the picture in 1926 for $5. A handwritten document attesting to this is on display. It also states that the book in the picture is indeed a Bible, and not a dictionary, as some thought. Wilden died in 1936 in a nursing home in Kansas.

Grace was made the official state of Minnesota photograph in 2002. In 2017 a resolution was passed to put it on a U. S. postage stamp, but it has yet to be issued. In 1993 the Living Grace Memorial was installed by the Bovey Civic Club in front of city hall, sanctified by the Masons, of which Enstrom was a member. The Bovey water tower proclaims, “Home of the Picture Grace,” and for a while Bovey police wore it as a uniform badge. In 2014 the Grand Rapids Players presented Picturing Grace, a play based on the famous picture. Nyberg’s only criticism of the production was Enstrom’s Swedish accent: “He didn’t have an accent. He was very careful not to.”

Nyberg feels the picture is the combined result of his grandfather’s photographic skills , his mother’s artistic talents, and luck in selecting Wilden as his subject. He said, “When you look at Mr. Wilden, you see he is what he is—a perfect model.”

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