The Martha’s Vineyard Museum has produced a gem of a show that gives us a lens into what the Island looked like over a century ago. The exhibition, which greets you with some 46 framed images of the people and places of the Vineyard in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is like taking a walk back in time.
When the museum thought about a photography show, they didn’t initially have a specific topic in mind. Exhibitions assistant Kate Logue had the mammoth task of going through the museum’s entire collection of some 50,000 pictures. The first photographer to work on the Island, S.C. Kenney, set up his studio for a few weeks in 1851, and since then countless others have followed suit, turning their cameras toward the people and places of Martha’s Vineyard.
Logue ended up narrowing the show down to the father-and-son team Charles and Richard G. Shute, who captured the Island as tourists saw it in the mid- to late-19th century, and Edward Lee Luce, who photographed the lives of Islanders in the early 20th century.
The photographs have been reprinted from the original glass plate negatives. Charles’ daughter (and Richard’s sister) donated about 600 of them to the museum. But luck played a part in how Luce’s arrived in the collection. They were found at the dump by Vineyard resident Basil Welch, who after playing around with them himself, left them to the museum.
Originally, Charles had a furniture and general goods store, and opened a photography studio around 1858 on the second floor. Richard began helping out as a teenager, and eventually the pair partnered in an official business in 1867, advertising as C.H. Shute and Son, Photographers.
Looking about, you can see examples of their handsome portraits, which is where they began, but as technology shifted and it became possible to move outdoors, they started creating mass-produced, salable stereo-view and cabinet cards (photographs mounted on stiff pieces of cardboard), catering to the nascent tourist industry emerging after the Civil War. The Shute photographs capture many of the same sites that tourists still snap shots of today as souvenirs. There are enticing reproduced examples for you to pick up and look at, including a stereoscopic viewer and accompanying paired picture cards — with the same image side by side — which give a three-dimensional illusion. Stereo photography was wildly popular, and by the mid-1860s, virtually every middle-class parlor would have sported one.
Another engaging interactive in the exhibition is an example of the type of camera Richard would have used in the end of his career that you can look through, seeing the landscape just outside the gallery window.
Luce, in contrast to the Shutes’ commercial bent, was much more interested in reflecting the Island back to the people who lived here. He worked as a photographer for a period in the 1910s and early 1920s, although at various points in his life he was a baker, a magazine salesman, a day laborer, a fortuneteller, and the West Tisbury tax collector, among other assorted jobs.
The Luce images tend to be more intimate, such as a child with chicks, a riding horse and handler, workers on bicycles, and Menemsha fishermen.
Logue explains about her curatorial choices, “In both cases, I tried to show the breadth of their work; the subject matter they focused on, and some type of geographical representation. The Shutes represented Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Gay Head (now Aquinnah). And then there are my favorite fun photos.” You’ll see babies making faces, and people with their animals feature large in the selections too.
Interactives on the back wall make the exhibition particularly enticing. We are encouraged to write and post sticky notes on large-scale sample reproductions of the artists’ work. It’s all kinds of fun looking at what others wrote as well as adding, for instance, what you think is happening, say to the photograph of two enigmatic girls in one of Luce’s images.
The Shute examples, on the other hand, are super-clear. And there is a magnifying lens that encourages us to look closely at the myriad of details their photos hold, providing a very clear impression of such things as the different brands of items that were carried in a grocery store.
“The invention of photography allowed a much greater number of things to be pictured, and who could afford to have the images in comparison to paintings,” Logue shares. “It also allowed shop owners and handymen to become photographers, and document all sorts of levels of life on the Island and elsewhere. These two collections particularly allow us to get a good view of what was happening on the Vineyard at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, and get a sense of Island life.”
“Picturing Martha’s Vineyard” will be open through Jan. 30 at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.