Ian Pirie MacDonald was born in Chicago on January 27, 1867, nine days after his mother arrived in this country from Scotland. The eldest of four children, he left his formal schooling at the age of 11 and took on a series of jobs to help support the family. In 1883 he began an apprenticeship with portrait photographer Frank Forshew (1827-1895) in Hudson, New York. By 1890, MacDonald had opened his own portrait studio in Albany, New York, a larger and more prosperous city north of Hudson that offered greater opportunity for business. After a decade of success there, he had earned both a substantial reputation and a healthy bank account, conditions that allowed him to be able to specialize. MacDonald chose to henceforth photograph only men, a decision that he upheld for the rest of his career and included a moratorium on photographing the female members of his own family. This change in focus also inspired him to move to New York City where he would have a patron pool sizeable enough to support his specialty. In a 1942 interview, MacDonald described his choice as "temperamentally fitted." His stamp on each portrait he made from 1900 on read: Pirie MacDonald. Photographer of Men, New York.
During his Albany years, MacDonald's work was shown in exhibitions in New York, the Midwest, and Paris, including regular appearances in the annual exhibitions of the Photographers Association of America, of which he was a member. By the end of his life, he had participated in more than forty exhibitions and salons in cities around the United States and in Canada, India, England, Ireland, Belgium, Holland, Germany and France. He was represented in exhibitions at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (1904) and the Century of Progress Exposition (1933), and served as a juror for six American and international exhibitions between 1906 and 1938. The verso of the mount board of his photographs listed thirty-three medals and awards won for his work.
A long-time member of the Professional Photographers Society of New York and the Camera Club of New York, MacDonald was also a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. He was active in a number of non-photographic organizations as well, including the Rotary Club of New York, the Boy Scouts of America, and the Adirondack Mountain Club, serving as an officer in each. In addition, he was the author and publisher of a drill manual for the Boy Scouts.
Pirie MacDonald suffered a cerebral hemorrhage at his country home, White Oak Shade, in New Canaan, Connecticut, while on an outing there with his grandson; he died four days after, on April 22, 1942, in a New York hospital. His death occasioned a full-column obituary in The New York Times accompanied by a self-portrait he made in 1940 (see Box 10, folder 246). In addition to his grandson, MacDonald was survived by his wife Emelie Van Dusen, a native of Hudson, whom he married in 1890, and a daughter and son-in-law, Patricia and Everett Tutchings.
Pirie MacDonald was highly regarded by his peers, as several articles on him in professional journals attest. A quote from a posthumous tribute by J. Dudley Johnston published in the Photographic Journal provides a summary of professional opinion: "He was a true artist, a marvelous technician, and a student of humanity, with a penetrating insight into human nature and character."