George Benjamin Wittick was born in Pennsylvania and later moved to Illinois, and then out west in 1878 to pursue frontier photography. He served in the Civil War for the union using the name “Benjamin Wallace” in Company A of the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Cavalry and Company D of the 2nd Minnesota Volunteer Cavalry, from 1862 to 1865. He first worked for the Atlantic and Pacific Railroads before establishing his first photography studio in Gallup, New Mexico.
During his career, he photographed many subjects to include the railroad; southwestern landscapes such as Canyon de Chelly, the Navajo Reservation, and Pueblo scenes; and the Native peoples mostly the Apache, Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni. Wittik was the first person to photograph the Hopi Snake Dance. An elder warned him at the time that he would die from a snake bite for witnessing the ceremony and not being an initiated member.
His photographs from this event brought the Hopi religious ritual great attention.
He carried with him a collection of props for his photographs to include rifles, pistols, blankets, pottery, and more. Most of his photographs were taken outside using the natural sunlight against backdrops.
Billy The Kid
Easily, Wittick’s most famous photograph is of Henry McCarty, AKA Billy the Kidd, in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The image is the only known image of the outlaw to be identified by those who knew him. The image It shows the outlaw dressed in a rumpled hat and ragged clothes, which include a bulky sweater. He’s is holding a Winchester carbine on his right side and a Colt revolver holstered on his left side. Two of these tintypes were produced. One is given to Paulita Maxwell, the kids girlfriend, and the other to friend Dan Dedrick. The last time this original is auctioned, it sold to William Koch for 2.3 million dollars.
It was taken by a traveling photographer who came through Fort Sumner [New Mexico] in 1880. Billy posed for it standing in the street near old Beaver Smith’s saloon. I never liked the picture. I don’t think it does Billy justice. It makes him look rough and uncouth. The expression of his face was really boyish and very pleasant. He may have worn such clothes as appear in the picture out on the range, but in Fort Sumner he was careful of his personal appearance and dressed neatly and in good taste.Paulita Maxwell Jaramillo, the Kid’s girlfriend – 1920’s
In 1900, he established his last studio at Fort Wingate. In 1903. he decided to return to visit the Hopi Snake Dance. As a gesture of friendship towards the Hopu, he captured a rattlesnake to bring to as a gift. While handling the snake, he is bitten on the thumb on August 8, 1903 and died three weeks later at Fort Wingate, New Mexico, just as the Hopi elder had predicted many years earlier.