Photography in Virginia at VHS
The Turkey Princess Note: The Virginia State Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1924 with one of its purposes to undertake “a consolidated statewide promotional program.” Consequently, a series of festivals were held around the state to promote particular products, like tobacco, apples and peanuts. Perhaps the most distinctive of the festival publicity materials were the […]
The Turkey Princess
Note: The Virginia State Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1924 with one of its purposes to undertake “a consolidated statewide promotional program.” Consequently, a series of festivals were held around the state to promote particular products, like tobacco, apples and peanuts. Perhaps the most distinctive of the festival publicity materials were the princess images, produced in the 1930s and until 1941. Young women posed in costumes or activities related in some way to the festival theme. The Virginia Turkey Festival, being promoted in this image, was held in Harrisonburg from 1939 to 1997. (Photo credit: Library of Virginia)
Photography has been an important medium in documenting life in Virginia for over 150 years. Photography in Virginia, a major photography exhibition now at the Virginia Historical Society (VHS), presents more than 300 pictures made within the borders of Virginia from the 1840s to the present.
The chronological narrative of the exhibition explores not only the technological progress of photography, but also who was making pictures and why. It also explains how photography has impacted our collective history and how we record it.
Using hundreds of previously unpublished works, Photography in Virginia displays ambrotypes, stereographs, prints, and slides, and covers such topics as photo albums, disasters, panoramas, mug shots, aerial photography, and more.
“Photographs are historical documents in the sense that they record what was in front of the lens at a specific time and place,” said VHS Prints and Photographs Curator Jeffrey Ruggles. “By knowing more about the process of creation—how photographs were originally used, or the purpose for which they were made—we are better able to interpret them as documents.”
The photographers featured in the exhibition include residents, visitors, professionals, and amateurs, and special attention is paid to African Americans, women, and Confederates. Work by numerous Virginia photographers is displayed, such as Frances Gibboney (Wytheville), Harry Mann (Norfolk), Earl Palmer (Christiansburg), Sally Mann (Lexington), and Willie Anne Wright (Richmond).
“Virginia is a good location for this exhibit because the state’s output has been extensive and began during the early stages of photography itself,” Ruggles said. “Although its subject is photography, the exhibition also offers a fresh look at Virginia history because it tells the story of the Commonwealth and its inhabitants in a way no document with just words could.”
Photography in Virginia is separated into five sections. The exhibition begins by looking at early photography in Virginia, beginning in the 1840s, including daguerreotypes made by Jesse Whitehurst and William Pratt, and photography on glass and paper. A camera obscura, a viewing device purchased by Thomas Jefferson in 1793, and Virginia’s earliest camera from 1839 are both on display in this section.
During the Civil War, there was a great deal more Union photography of the state than Confederate, and the approaches differed.
Examples of carte de visite portraits, views of encampments, large prints of structural engineering, and Andrew J. Russell’s album of images are displayed in the second part of the exhibition. Also included are 1867 photographs of the state’s first integrated jury pool assembled for the Jefferson Davis trial.
The post–Civil War period saw the rise of photography as a cottage industry, with each community served by a studio operator who took portraits, group shoots, event photos, and made copies. Tintypes, life-size portraits, and early African American studio work is displayed in the section about local and regional photographers.
About 1890, modern photography was born when a critical mass of technical advances came together. The medium became popular, accessible by the early 1900s to skilled amateurs and eventually by the 1960s to virtually everyone. Techniques, processes, and methods are explored near the end of the exhibition. Examples of topics include exposing negatives, making prints, reproductions in ink, color photography, panoramas, transparencies, and projection.
The long century of what is now called analog photography lasted from 1890 to about 2005. The twentieth-century photography section is broken down into five categories that show specialization in the industry.
- “Practical” photography includes architecture, science, and aerial images.
- “Pictorial” includes photos from camera clubs around Virginia and displays views of work and life.
- The “Promotional” section includes pictures taken to publicize the 1907 Jamestown Exposition and for display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
- “Documentary” images include photos from disasters and for military use.
- The final section—“Personal”—explores women photographers, amateur photography, photo albums, and portrait varieties. (more…)
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