The Martha’s Vineyard Museum has produced an exhibit gem that gives us a glimpse of what the island looked like over a century ago. The exhibition, which welcomes you with some 46 framed images of men and places in the vineyard in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is like a journey through time.
When the museum thought of a photography exhibition, it didn’t have a specific topic in mind at the start. Exhibition assistant Kate Logue had the colossal task of browsing the museum‘s entire collection of some 50,000 paintings. The first photographer to work on the island, SC Kenney, set up his studio for a few weeks in 1851, and since then countless more have followed suit, turning their cameras on the people and places of Martha’s Vineyard.
Logue ended up restricting the show to the father-son team Charles and Richard G. Shute, who captured the island as tourists saw it from the mid to late 19th century, and Edward Lee Luce, who photographed the life of Islanders at the beginning of the 20th century.
The photographs were reprinted from the original glass plate negatives. Charles’s daughter (and Richard’s sister) donated around 600 to the museum. But luck played a role in how Luce got into the collection. They were found at the landfill by Basil Welch, a Vineyard resident, who, after playing with them himself, left them at the museum.
Originally, Charles owned a furniture and general items store and opened a photography studio around 1858 on the second floor. Richard began helping as a teenager and eventually the couple partnered with a formal business in 1867, advertising as CH Shute and Son, Photographers.
Looking around you can see examples of their beautiful portraits, this is where they started, but as technology evolved and it became possible to move around outdoors, they started. to create mass-produced and salable stereo and cabinet viewing cards (photographs mounted on rigid pieces of cardboard), aimed at the nascent tourism industry emerging after the Civil War. Shute’s photographs capture many of the same sites that tourists still take as souvenirs today. There are attractive reproduced examples that you can pick up and watch, including a stereoscopic viewer and paired picture cards – with the same image side by side – that give a three-dimensional illusion. Stereo photography was very popular, and by the mid-1860s virtually every middle-class living room had sported one.
Another interesting interaction in the exhibit is an example of the type of camera Richard would have used at the end of his career that you can look through, seeing the scenery just outside the gallery window.
Luce, unlike the Shutes’ commercial penchant, was much more interested in reflecting the island 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, magazine seller, day laborer, fortune teller and tax collector of West Tisbury, among other various occupations.
Luce’s images tend to be more intimate, like a child with chicks, a horse and handler, bicycle workers, and menemsha fishermen.
Logue explains of his curatorial choices: “In both cases, I tried to show the extent of their work; the topic they focused on and some type of geographic representation. The Shutes represented Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Gay Head (now Aquinnah). And then there are my favorite funny photos. You will see babies making funny faces and people with their animals also feature prominently in the selections.
The interactive elements on the back wall make the exhibition particularly attractive. We are encouraged to write and post sticky notes on large-scale sample reproductions of artists’ work. It’s great fun looking at what other people have written and adding, for example, what you think is going on, say to the photograph of two enigmatic girls in one of Luce’s pictures.
Shute’s examples, on the other hand, are very clear. And there’s a magnifying glass that encourages us to take a close look at the myriad of details in their photos, giving a very clear impression of things like the different brands of items that have been worn in a grocery store.
“The invention of photography made it possible to photograph more things, and who could afford to have the images compared to paintings,” shares Logue. “It also allowed traders and DIY enthusiasts to become photographers and document all kinds of living standards on the island and beyond. These two collections allow in particular to have a good vision of what was happening in the vineyard at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, and to get an idea of island life.
“Picturing Martha’s Vineyard” will be open until January 30 at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.