Vintage photos fill Penumbra Gallery on Martha’s Vineyard

Penumbra Photography proprietor Eugene Goldfield with some of his vintage photographs. — Photo by Ben Williams

The black and white images on the walls of Penumbra Gallery on North Summer Street in Edgartown hold history in frozen moments from the 19th and 20th centuries. The gallery deals solely in vintage prints, photographs that were made into prints shortly after the negative was made.

Eugene Goldfield has operated the gallery for 20 years, amassing a large inventory. For Mr. Goldfield, one of the biggest challenges of owning a vintage photo shop is conveying to new clientele that the images he sells are unique. He does not make copies of the prints, and they are preserved on the same paper they were printed on years ago.

For early photographers printing was time intensive and expensive, so a photo that was going to have a run of 50 prints would often end up with nine or less. Since many of the prints Mr. Goldfield sells are more than one hundred years old, the chances of other copies are slim.

“Overridingly I think they are unique images by being vintage. As time passes it’s less and less likely that there are other copies out there. Even famous photographers wanted to be taking photos, not printing,” said Mr. Goldfield.

The images display a wide range – from Yosemite landscapes to 1890s Venice; from Scranton lace samples to lions in cages. “I like to think my inventory requires ponderance and time. One has to slow down to really look. Everything I have in here I wouldn’t have purchased if it didn’t have an interest for me,” said Mr. Goldfield.

The images cover an expanse of history, snapshots of a world that doesn’t exist anymore. There are many images that come right out of old family albums, and one wonders how these families became such adept photographers. The details on these old prints are extraordinary, and the images tend to hover in the mind for one of two reasons. Either, as in the image of Yosemite, the details are intensely vivid and defined or, as in an image of an old dirigible, the photo is so unusual it is entrancing.

Penumbra Gallery does not have a website. “I like people to study the prints firsthand,” said Mr. Goldfield. “So much gets lost online. I research and locate online, but to appreciate a print you have to be with it ”

Mr. Goldfield majored in art but has never been a photographer. He studied the history of photography and entered the profession of selling vintage prints through his love of them. “I work hard to make the images accessible, less rarified. A rule of thumb is that when you go into well known photographer’s, there’s a price structure. I prefer the quirky photos found in antiquated family albums,” he said.

He seeks out images that are unique and make people think. “I take pleasure in having a wide breadth of pictures that strike chords in all sorts of people,” he said.

Joseph Niepce took the earliest known photograph in 1827. It is a dingy image of the view from his window. Penumbra gallery has photos that date back to the 1850s, meaning its inventory is a catalogue that runs across the age of the image.

The photos are archivally matted and framed, and the prints are not modified in any way. “There’s an implicit element of time in the early paper, a fading of the paper’s edges that distinguishes it as an early print,” said Mr. Goldfield. “I feel a responsibility to share what I’ve learned over the years and educate the public about the history of photography. I want them to know the right questions to ask when purchasing early prints. ”

At one point Mr. Goldfield pulled out a book about the history of photography to share a favorite line of his about the early photograph: “It held the data in suspension till you are ready to absorb it.”

Penumbra Photographs, 33 N. Summer St., Edgartown. For information, call 508-627-9002.