This Was Then: Conant’s Studio

Conveniently located in a saloon.

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A carriage stops in front of Hillman’s Saloon on Main Street, about where Bryn Walker is today. The pre-fire Mansion House is visible on the right, and the old Baptist Church is in the background (circa 1870s.) —Courtesy Chris Baer

Photography arrived in the United States in the early 1840s and spread astonishingly quickly. By the end of the decade there were dozens of “Daguerrean artists” working commercially across Massachusetts, including at least three in New Bedford alone. Many of the very first photographs of Vineyarders were made in studios across the sound in the Whaling City.

By the 1850s, mainland photographers began to visit our Island, like E.T. Kelley and Charles Hawes, both of New Bedford, who each came to make daguerreotypes (exposed on silver-plated mirrors and developed using toxic mercury fumes) and ambrotypes (made on wet glass plates and backed with black velvet).

Our first native photographer was probably artist George Butler of Tisbury, who made and sold ambrotypes and tintypes on the Island in the late 1850s and early 1860s. (He soon gave up this vocation and became a fisherman on Nomans Land.) A better-remembered early Island photographer is Charles Shute of Edgartown, a Nantucket native who opened a photo studio above his furniture store in Edgartown about the same time. More local artists opened photography businesses on the Island during the mid-1860s, like Civil War pensioner Enoch Cornell of Edgartown, and jeweler Benjamin Kidder of Holmes Hole, both Island natives.

Joseph Conant opened his photography studio in Holmes Hole toward the end of the war. A Cape Cod native, Conant moved here from New Bedford and opened his “photographic rooms” on Main Street, in Hillman’s Saloon. Thomas Hillman Esq. was a wealthy entrepreneur and the town’s lawman. He served as police officer, trial justice, and tax collector for the town of Tisbury for decades until his own run-in with the law — two high-profile adultery cases — sent him to the Bristol County House of Corrections for two years of hard labor at the age of 63. Before he left for prison, however, Hillman had opened a saloon and leased part of his building to a number of small businesses like Conant’s.

Conant didn’t last long on the Vineyard, however. In the early 1870s he and his family moved permanently to Falmouth. Conant House, home of the Falmouth Historical Society, is named after their Vineyard-born eldest son.
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.