Mystic Seaport exhibit recreates how people used to get their picture taken
When's the last time you had your picture taken? It was probably that selfie you snapped yesterday after posting your lunch on Instagram.
Imagine if getting a shot of your good-looking mug weren't quite so easy. Suppose it involved dressing up in costume, trooping over to a studio, arguing with the photographer, sitting uncomfortably still in an awkward pose, then paying a few days' wages for the privilege.
No one wants to live in that world, but it's a nice place to visit in a new exhibit at Mystic Seaport Museum. "When This You See, Remember Me" is a journey back to a time when photography, now an instant convenience, was for special occasions.
The show celebrates two local portrait photographers whose careers spanned the years 1865 to 1939. But rather than being a simple retrospective of their work, it recreates the full experience of getting your picture taken in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The museum is fortunate to have in its collection not just thousands of photos by Everett A. Scholfield and George E. Tingley, but also the accoutrements of their livelihoods: cameras, props, business records. All of these things have their place in the exhibit.
Scholfield grew up in Westerly, served in the Civil War, then launched his career as a photographer, working in Westerly, Mystic and finally New London. In 1885, he took on Tingley, an Old Mystic native, as an apprentice, then made him a partner.
Portraits were the core of their business, though they also produced street scenes, like the view of Mystic that greets visitors to the exhibit, enlarged to fill most of a wall. Entering from there as if through a storefront, one finds an old wooden desk with an account book open to Christmas Eve 1885, when business was booming.
The transactional aspect of the experience is represented by an ink well and fountain pen, and a welter of receipts and correspondence on the desk and tacked to the wall. There's also a stock of blank cabinet cards and other supplies. Scholfield's business card bears a slogan ripe with alliterative overkill: "The people's popular pushing progressive photographer."
Next, one encounters the first of several studio cameras, which can be looked through to see a chair opposite where the sitter would pose. But the view is upside-down, and photographers had to compose their shots that way, much as typesetters learned to read backwards.
Four of Scholfield and Tingley's backdrops, painted in shades of gray, are part of the show, as is a prop painted to look like a rock. Another of the cameras is a behemoth. Since no enlargement or reduction was possible, the bigger the desired photo, the bigger the camera.
Influenced by portrait painting, photographers drew on their aesthetic instincts, using various tools to compose a shot. As well as props and backdrops, these included light, drapery and furniture. The sitter was also an element of the scene and was subjected to an array of poses. Of course, as the sitters were footing the bill, they might also have ideas about how the portrait should look, and sometimes customer and artiste found themselves at odds.
Tingley's memoir, which the museum has on file, tells of a woman arriving at his studio with her youngster, who wanted nothing to do with a mother-son portrait. After arguing with her in vain, he whispered to the photographer, "Make it as worse as you can!"
Another time, a couple and their four children descended on Tingley, and the father requested "a tintype of the whole damn family." But upon learning he would be charged a dollar, he declared, "By God, I won’t pay it!" and marched the whole damn family out the door.
When a woman of 60 asked if Tingley could make her appear beautiful, he assured her that her looks gave him plenty to work with, then offered advice: "Be sure to get a splendid hair do, top it all off with a 'come hither' smile and leave the rest to me."
After the photos were taken, they were developed by hand. A short video documents the darkroom process by which they were put through a bath of three successive chemicals: one to make the image appear, one to stop it from overdeveloping and one to make it permanent.
Watching the video, anyone with experience in photography will be struck not by how ancient this method is, but how recent: Only the digital age made it obsolete.
Interactive features include a corner where one can think in black and white: Everything there — table and chairs, plants and flowers — is monochromatic, as were photos of the time.
This section also features reproductions of several Scholfield & Tingley stereo views, cards on which a local scene, printed twice, can be viewed with a 3-D effect using a handheld device called a stereopticon. Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers will recall something similar called a View-Master.
Visitors can use Post-Its to supply their own captions for a photo, and predictably, wise guys rise to the challenge. Two men are shown, one pointing at something unseen. "I think the men's room is that way," someone wrote. Another offering riffs on the name of one of the photographers: "I'm feeling Tingley, how about you?"
After all of this, the only thing that hasn't been displayed in detail is the portraits themselves. Elysa Engelman, the museum’s director of exhibits, said the idea was to avoid a traditional pictures-on-walls approach. Instead, the show concludes with an elegant blend of old and new: a digital slideshow of dozens of portraits.
To the lilt of period music, the citizens of another age roll by, one after another, with spellbinding effect. A boy teeters atop a high-wheeled bicycle. A girl stands in the snow looking well-bundled and toasty. A man in civilian garb sports a chest full of medals.
Some of the shots capture moments that, if not spontaneous, show studied informality. One man snoozes in a chair, another cradles his dog as if it's a baby.
Many of the subjects display their professional selves: a firefighter in dress uniform and high-eagle helmet, a bandsman with his cornet, a priest holding a bible. A bare-knuckle boxer brandishes two potent fists, and a baseball player proudly wears his jersey, the letters spelling out "New London."
Engelman said there's evidence the photographers desired to document interesting people in the community, seeking them out and bringing them to the studio rather than just taking whoever came in. Tingley's memoir mentions a watchmaker who fascinated him when he was a boy. Sixty years later, he asked the man, by then 92 and still working, to come in and pose with the tools of his trade.
We're indebted to the photographers for their farsightedness: They left us a record of a lost world. But maybe even more important, their portraits show a universal quality.
Look past the strange clothes and hairstyles, and you see faces you could easily meet on the street. We're looking at our ancestors but also, in a way, at ourselves.
If you go
What: "When This You See, Remember Me"
Where: Mystic Seaport Museum, R.J. Schaefer Building, Greenmanville Avenue
When: Through early June
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursday-Sunday (daily as of March 22)
Admission: $28.95 for adults, $26.95 for ages 65 and up, $24.95 for ages 13-17, $18.95 for ages 3-12
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