The Tradition of the Town Photographer
Deep in the American psyche rests the images of our collective, interlocked past. We look to these photographs for an affirmation of the way life was, and for a thread to connect to our present selves. The glut of photographic images in our contemporary culture makes the innocence of these pictures showing old, weird America even more important.
In small historical societies all over this country, countless photographs of the past are stored and upheld as evidence of local lives and places. These images were not made by the art photography heroes of the age, but by local people who learned photography like any other trade. They employed this new skill to suit their own needs, and the needs of their neighbors, who were also their patrons.
Local photographers in every small town made documents that show the reality, the culture, and the ways of the people that surrounded them. The multiplicity of these pictures throughout the United States shows that a pattern emerged around the turn of the 19th century: common people wanted their photograph taken, and not just in a studio, but on their land and in front of their home. They wanted photographs to stand for and display their family identity.
In this time period, being photographed held the seriousness of a ceremony. The sitters felt that the image to be made would represent them, so they would want to appear well groomed and present for the moment of exposure. The innocence which these people display before the lens holds them bare: we can speculate about their lives, and project onto their faces our comparative comforts of today.
The event of being photographed held weight partially because of the relative scarcity of photographs in rural life. The majority of these photographs were made with a view camera on a tripod. The slow pace dictated by the clumsiness of this equipment allows these pictures to shine with a quality of permanence. The photographer was sure to have everything accurately composed before exposing a plate (the antithesis to the snapshot cameras that become widely available after the turn of the 20th century).
The large format negatives of most town photographers were glass dry-plates, or the earliest available nitrate films. By 1890, the dry-plate was phenomenally popular, and therefore inexpensive to buy1. They were purchased from film companies in bulk and were ready to use right out of the box, just as film is today. Photography was now in the hands of the masses, and did not require the incredible expertise needed for the earlier wet-plate photography. As the technique was made easier the number of town photographers exploded.
Soon after dry-plates became available, the United States Postal Service began Rural Free Delivery (1898)2, which shrank the communication distances between those people who lived rurally. Local photographers jumped on the new fad of postcards, the simplest way to write to a distant, rural friend. The town photographer made landscape views of the local area, was on hand to document town events, and was also open to photographing people who wanted to send their portrait to a friend. It is these types of pictures which show local culture as viewed by a local. An event such as a town fair was documented by the photographer, who could in turn sell the photographic image by which townspeople could remember the dancing bear, or the prize-winning yoke of oxen.
The town photographer was foremost a local businessman, who would use his technique to photograph anything for a price. When the local market was saturated, he would often prepare a wagon and take to the countryside in search of more customers. In rural areas, the family portrait in front of the house was extremely popular. This prevalent image form was aesthetically pleasing, and meant a tremendous amount to the family – they were immortalized. Even if a family had very little money, this image was sought after and purchased somehow (often times this meant room and board for the photographer and his horse, or other forms of barter).
Local photographers whose work has risen to national attention in the last few decades are Solomon Butcher from Nebraska3, the Howes brothers of western Massachusetts4, Darius Kinsey of Washington State5, and Charles Van Schaick of Wisconsin6. These men have been the subjects of historical monographs, and all share aspects of the town photographer as described above. Countless others, both men and women, who remain in obscurity have visions equally as rich and are celebrated locally, as they were meant to be.
A local photographer from southeastern Vermont named Porter Thayer is a primary antecedent for this book about the town of Marlboro, Vermont. He worked in and outwards from his hometown of Newfane (the town bordering Marlboro to the north) beginning in 1906 through around 1920. Like most Vermont men of his generation (b. 1882) he was a farmer, specifically an apple orchardist. He turned to his apple business after ending his photographic career.
The postcard craze that most likely reached Vermont by about 1905, was perhaps the impetus for Porter Thayer starting up a photographic business. His diaries tell that he sold 1,197 postal cards during a six-month period at the height of his career. The cards were for sale as souvenirs to summer tourists at small general stores, local inns, boarding houses and hotels. Local folks purchased his photographs as well, especially around the Christmas season, to send to distant relatives. A Brattleboro, Vermont directory of 1909 lists Porter as advertising that he would come to anyone’s home and make images for a reasonable fee. Around 1911 he recorded that he had 720 customers7. Eventually he photographed in all the towns within a 25 mile radius of his home in Newfane.
Porter Thayer perfectly fits the archetype of the town photographer. He traveled the narrow dirt roads in his buggy, behind his faithful mare Lady, who accompanied him daily. He could apparently take extended naps while Lady brought him safely home, as she always knew the way. He used a camera of approximately 5 x 7 inches and made glass dry-plate negatives. He traveled with stacks of postcards to be delivered at stores along the way to his days work.
Working continually through seasons and years, Porter Thayer left an archive that is a cultural treasure for southeastern Vermont. The quality of his work shows that he was able to combine business needs with aesthetic ones. The images clearly articulate the flavor of local life in the early part of the 20th century, but also resonate as visual statements that are rooted to the land. He documented town life, but also rural working and hunting practices. These pictures seep narratives of the hunt or of a long day behind a road grader.
During the time period Porter worked, Vermont was extremely poor and rural, yet held a close-knit population that shared the labors of life. Farmers helped one another to survive in a subsistence and barter economy. For women, men, and children, life meant constant work. Thayer’s images describe the work and the tools involved.
His landscape images reveal this working landscape, which today is mostly hidden by trees. The fruits of his labor as a photographer have grown in importance, as both the landscape and culture of Vermont has shifted into modern spheres of living. A few souls can still remember the reality of this past, but they are increasingly succumbing to death. The Vermont culture of that time, carefully recorded by the camera of Porter Thayer, can today only be viewed as the mythic past.
1 Szarkowski, John. Photography Until Now. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1989. Pg. 126 – 141.
2 Morgan, H. and Brown, A. Prairie Fires and Paper Moons. Boston: David Godine, 1981. Pg. Xii.
3 Carter, John E. Solomon D. Butcher. Lincon & London: University of Nebraska, 1985.
4 Newman, Alan B., ed. New England Reflections 1882 – 1907, Photographs By the Howes Brothers. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981.
5 Bohn, D. and Petschek, R. Kinsey Photographer. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 1978.
6 Lesy, Michael. Wisconsin Death Trip. New York: Random House, 1973.
7 Thayer, Lillian. Porter C. Thayer. Brattleboro, VT: Prompt Image, 1985. Pg. 25.
8 Heat-Moon, William Least. PrairyErth: (a deep map). Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1991. Pg. 99.
9 Weiss, John, ed. Venus, Jupiter & Mars – the Photographs of Frederick Sommer. Wilmington: Delaware Art Museum, 1980. Pg. 17.
10 Trachtenberg, Alan. Reading American Photographs. New York : Hill and Wang, 1989. Pg. 287 – 8.
11 Davenport, Guy. Geography of the Imagination.
12 Campbell, Joseph with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988. Pg. 91 –