Don’t Smile for the Camera, at the Memorial Hall Museum, Deerfield

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George W. Hale, Young Men with Dog, South Deerfield, albumen print, about 1890
George W. Hale, Young Men with Dog, South Deerfield, albumen print, about 1890

Don’t Smile for the Camera, at the Memorial Hall Museum, Deerfield.

The exhibition will be on view daily from 11 am to 5 pm through November 2, 2008. At the Old Deerfield Summer Craft Fair on June 21 and 22, tintype photographer John Bernaski will demonstrate his craft for the public. Admission to the nineteen exhibition rooms on art, history, and culture in Memorial Hall Museum, 8 Memorial Street, Deerfield, MA, is $6 for adults, and $3 for youth and students 6-21. For more information call 413-774-3768 x 10 or visit the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association’s website. Click here for a gallery of highlights from the exhibition.

In this day and age, when the good life revolves around a McMansion in a gated community and the destination of a family outing is more likely to be Six Flags than Old Sturbridge Village or Old Deerfield, few remember what these museum towns actually mean. The range of artistic and social movements associated with such places over the years give one an idea of the various facets of human interest they appealed to: preservationism, the Colonial revival, Arts and Crafts, historical pageantry and so on. At one time the opinions and designs of John Ruskin and William Morris or, later, the writings and the photographs of Wallace Nutting reached broad popular audiences through a variety of books and magazines. A housewife would not think of decorating her home without consulting them, or even paying a visit to a place like Deerfield, where she might even expect to purchase examples of traditional crafts from local artisans, as well as photographic records of the exhibits or reenactments she had seen on the spot. These she could take home for inspiration, either for practical decorative ends or simply to recreate the mood of times gone by.

These movements played a vital role in shaping photography from its origins through the first half of the twentieth century. Old buildings, especially endangered vernacular buildings, and traditional crafts were among Fox Talbot’s first subjects. Gustave le Gray did the same, and photography was an integral part of Viollet-le-Duc’s architectural restorations. Important later workers like Frederick Evans andP. H. Emerson were inspired by this mentality, and the American, Frances Benjamin Johnston, actively supported the preservation and recording of historic buildings with her work. It also played a major role in the work of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Walker Evans. Antiquarianism, then, informed a major stream in the history of photography, extending from purely documentary work to the greatest fine art photography. Deerfield was a center for all aspects of this photography, including views of historic houses, illustrations of bygone crafts and traditions, records of historical costume, historical reenactments and pageants, simple portrait photography, above all of highly regarded elderly townspeople, even the dead.

Emma L. Coleman, Portrait of George Sheldon, founder of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Albumen Print, 1895.
Emma L. Coleman, Portrait of George Sheldon, founder of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Albumen Print, 1895.

Deerfield has an extraordinarily long history of antiquarianism and preservation, going back at least to 1848, when George Sheldon, who would later, in 1870, found the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (one of the first preservationist organizations to be founded in the the U.S.), when his family’s first home, known as the Old Indian House, was demolished against the protests of the townspeople. Sheldon managed to preserve the front door and a few architectural fragments, which are on display in the Memorial Hall Museum. Along with this feeling of losing something old and beautiful that is close to one, either through ownership or tradition, there was the general discomfot of mid-nineteenth-century Europeans and Americans towards industrialization. A desire arose to preserve or to record vanishing crafts and traditions, and this naturally extended to less tangible values like morality and the sense of community which was being lost as towns grew larger and larger and young people left for factory jobs in even larger cities. Another dimension of this in small close-knit places like Deerfield was family and ancestry. Seen in this context, the portraits of elderly people seem like indirect, implied records of the stories they had to tell and the lore they possessed.

The handsome exhibition Don’t Smile for the Camera, on view at the Memorial Hall Museum until November 2, 2008, consists of 75 portraits made by local professionals of local inhabitants of many different ilks, as well as the Pictorialist photography by the Allen sisters, Deerfield fine art photographers, who achieved an international reputation during their career, which extended from about 1885 to about 1920. As Pictorialism went out of fashion, they were forgotten and their negatives and prints nearly destroyed. It is a miracle that they survived to enter the museum collection, where they have been preserved and catalogued with the highest professionalism. Their work included portraits of fellow townspeople as well, but it extended much farther, enriched by their association with the Art and Crafts Movement, of which Deerfield was a major center, and by the Pictorialist taste for staged narrative scenes in costume, which intentionally evoked the spirit and the manner of old master paintings.

The exhibition, organized by Suzanne Flynt, who has been the curator of the museum for twenty-six years, includes daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, and albumen and platinum prints—which cover most of what photography studios offered through the nineteenth century, the daguerreotype, the early arrival among them, occupying the high end. Tintypes and ambrotypes offered the client more affordable images. The title of the exhibition and its premise address a question which commonly occurs to the average visitor, why don’t the sitters ever smile at the camera? Through this the curator touches on basic social questions surrounding early photography. Who were these people? What was their position in society? What did they expect in a photograph? What was its purpose or function? Just what sort of place was the photographer’s studio? What was the social position of the photographer? What part do women play on both sides of the lens? The exhibition poses all these questions and more.

And why on earth didn’t these people smile? Were these people really such dour characters? Was life so grim back then? Or has this facial gesture perhaps become cheapened in twentieth century society? As the introductory label points out, the smile was promoted as a convention of amateur photography by George Eastman in the publicity for his inexpensive, easy-to-use Kodak cameras. These cameras were largely marketed to women, and they were promoted as fashionable objects, resembling a purse when folded up, which would not compromise the dress of the most fastidious lady, and also as an adjunct of holidays and leisure time—a country outing with one’s young man or a family picnic. How the smile, especially a toothy one, found a place in the etiquette Eastman’s genteel, middle-class target audience, remains, I might say, outside the domain of this review. The good people of nineteenth century Deerfield wanted to be represented as they were, and a smile was not a part of it. Sometimes disturbing emotions come the the surface.

In the double portrait of a married couple, Charles and Ellen Leissing the young wife seems to cringe away from her rather ill-tempered-looking husband. Or is it only her reaction to the iron head brace the photographer used to hold her head still for the exposure? Ruby Stebbins, depicted in a pair of portraits with her downtrodden-looking husband Zebina, appears to be a force to be respected. The five hunters who posed with their dog most definitely want to be taken seriously, while the two young men who sat with their enormous hound in their laps seem totally unaware of the comic implications of the scene, proof positive that dog owners come to look like their animals. The thoughts of Tryphena and Wealthy Abel are best left up to the individual viewer’s imagination. Perhaps the girl in Pilgrim costume, who is posing for a Kodak, is stifling a hint of a smile.

Behind an exhibition of this sort there lie the research of the local historian, who gathers what information about the sitters and the photographers she can, sometimes directly from a donor, usually a descendant, or more indirectly, when, as is so often the case, an object comes into the collection with no background at all. It also requires a strong knowledge of photography. It happens that Suzanne Flynt is photographer herself, and she has worked with the tintype and the wet plate processes. (A specialist, John Bernaski, will be demonstrating the processes at the Old Deerfield Craft Fair on June 21 and 22, to be catered by Holy Smokes BBQ, a treat not to be missed!) Display and design also create special problems, particularly in the case of daguerreotypes, which present a mirrored surface to the eyes of the viewer. The angle of incident light has to be just right for the daguerreotype to be visible, but when it is, one sees a glowing image of seemingly infinite tonal gradations and extreme sharpness; above all, there is an almost supernatural three-dimensionality to the image, made by silver on a polished copper plate. In order to achieve this, Ms. Flynt installed LED display lights below each shelf in an antique cabinet, making it possible to see each of the daguerreotypes clearly, without excessive contortions. As elsewhere in the museum, state-of-the-art technology is used invisibly.

Ms. Flynt, in selecting the photographs, balanced artistic potency with historical interest. Both came together most hauntingly in the portrait of Martha Pratt, postmaster of Deerfield, who for many years was a much beloved member of the community. A shy, reflective character emerges from this beautifully lit and composed image. She seems small-bodied, with an unusually large, intelligent head. In the unusual, off-center and downward-pointed angle of vision, she seems about to share some thought or judgement, while showing marked reserve in the grip of her forearms across her midriff.

Portrait of Martha Pratt
Portrait of Martha Pratt

Unlike the modest professionals who made portraits for local clients who wanted a keepsake for there family and friends, the Allen sisters were more ambitious and enjoyed a national and international reputation through their career. Frances Stebbins Allen (1854-1941) and Mary Electa Allen (1858-1941) were both trained as schoolteachers, but deafness forced them both to withdraw from teaching in the early 1880’s. They learned photography as a respectable way to earn a modest income in spite of their handicap, and Deerfield’s preeminence in the Arts and Crafts Movement, in the words of Handicraft, “its fourfold aspect which makes up the background for human happiness, – rural peace and plenty, historic associations, artistic expression, and intellectual alertness” gave them opportunities to photograph Deerfield landmarks and antiquities for clients in major cities, like Boston. The introduction of photomechanical printing in 1888 opened up another market for them in magazines and books and enabled their work to become widely known. Their friendships with prominent women in the world of art and social work, like Ellen Gates Starr, co-founder of Hull House in Chicago and the famous photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston further enhanced their reputation. They entered and did well in the major amateur photography competitions, and Johnston included them in her exhibitions, most importantly her exhibition of the work of American women for the Third International Congress of Photography in Paris, held in conjunction with the Universal Exposition of 1900. Their career continued to flourish—they were praised in The Craftsman; they travelled to California and Europe—until, during the mid-1920’s, Frances’ blindness, Mary’s ill-health, and post-war trends in photography and art led them to taper off their photographic work.

Frances and Mary Allen, A Holbein Woman, 1892 (not in exhibition)
Frances and Mary Allen, A Holbein Woman, 1892 (not in exhibition)

Their subjects reflected their residence in Deerfield, their involvement in the Arts and Crafts Movement, and their position as women. They photographed local landscapes, the historic architecture and interiors which abounded in the area, craftspeople at work, portraits of colorful locals and children, often in staged scenesof play. They had a particular technique for getting natural poses from children. They photographed the elaborate pageants of events from colonial history which were promoted by the Arts and Crafts Movement, even making, to their regret, postcards for the crowds of tourists who came to view them. Mary provided photographs for Kodak advertisements. One depicts a nurse, smiling of course, admonishing a child to be careful around a semi-open Kodak. Their imitations of old master compositions, like A Holbein Woman, are particularly significant. Most, if not all, are in the characteristic soft Pictorialist style and printed on platinum paper.

Frances and Mary lived on, continuing to sell prints of their past work, until they both died within four days of one another in 1941. By that time Pictorial photography and the Arts and Crafts Movement commanded little attention. The sisters’ descendents stored their negatives and prints on their porch with only blankets to protect them from the elements until the 1960’s, when they were brought to the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association Library, where they catalogued and organized as historic documents. Only in 1996 were they transferred to the Museum, where they were archivally preserved and fully catalogued.

Don’t Smile for the Camera has no catalogue, but there is a catalogue devoted to the Allen sisters, The Allen Sisters: Pictorial Photographers 1885-1920an especially distinguished one for its design, the quality of its reproductions, Suzanne Flynt’s scholarship and writing, as well as its delightful quotations of Frances and Mary’s tart comments on photography, Deerfield, and life. It has deservedly won major book awards from the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England, Inc.), New England Museum Association, and American Association of State and Local History.

Mary E. Allen, Portrait of the Artist's Mother, platinum print, 1890-95.
Mary E. Allen, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, platinum print, 1890-95.
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