Born in Maine and having learned the daguerreotype process in Boston, Robert Vance traveled to South America, where he opened several daguerreian galleries in Chile. After selling those establishments, Vance moved to California in late 1850. There he made more than three hundred daguerreotypes during the California gold rush; capitalizing on public interest, he exhibited them to enthusiastic reviews in New York in 1851 before auctioning them off two years later.
By the late 1850s, Vance owned galleries throughout Northern California; Carleton Watkins ran Vance's gallery in San Jose. Vance later owned galleries in Nevada and as far away as Hong Kong. He left California in 1865 and died in New York.