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On Her Own: Photography and Time in Maine

A Meditation on ‘Chansonetta: The Life and Photographs of Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, 1858 – 1937 ’ by Marius B. Peladeau,  with an introduction by Berenice Abbott, published in Maine Antique Digest, Waldoboro, Maine, December, 1977 –

Chansonetta with camera at the beginning of her life as a photographer

Chansonetta Stanley Emmons (1858 -1957) packs her camera, a 1904 5 x 7 inch Century capable of speeds from 3 to 1/100th of a second—along with her tripod, carrying case and glass plates, it is a bulky load but she is setting off with a helper, her daughter Dorothy, sometime model as well.

They load the equipment into a Ford motorcar given to Chansonetta by her two brothers, both inventors, one of the Stanley Steamer, the other of the Stanley dry plate photographic process. She is setting out from Kingfield, Maine, the town where she grew up and to which she returns every summer after the early death of her husband.

Dorothy who is also the chauffeur, drives through the town, a busy place of working people, of loggers and sawmills, grinders and gristmills, forges and blacksmiths, a world of rural industry that is long gone. At the outskirts of the town, where the countryside begins, they drive past farms, hay and potato fields, a pastoral world also long gone that we know through Chansonetta’s lens.

Chansonetta and Dorothy in Kingfield, Maine

Chansonetta stops from time to time to take photographs of farming life, its outdoor world of gathering and harvesting, its interior domestic world. Her sessions are long drawn-out affairs. The restrictions of her bulky camera and the slowness of emulsion speeds require all her scenes to be posed; there is no other way.

But there is another reason for these lengthy sittings; Chansonetta is a perfectionist, a quality that in her day at least for a woman, was considered obsessive, by attributed by the writer of the one book about her work, to what he calls her ‘gentility.’ i.e., the just-rightness of manners. Bah humbug. It is the perfectionism of the artist. One of her frequent subjects said that Chansonetta always made people feel they were posing for an art form.

‘Great Scott,’ said Berenice Abbott some seven decades later, when she first looked at Chansonetta’s images. In her introduction to that one book — more of a monograph, and now out of print — Abbott went on to write, ‘I thought one or two may be lucky accidents, but no — on looking further, they were not. Here was consistency — the sensitive, restless eye. No artifice but an eye uncontaminated with fads, trends or cults. She was on her own.’

In fact, Chansonetta had an educated eye; throughout her life she studied fine art and considered herself a painter as well as a photographer. Like her compatriot, the writer Sarah Orne Jewett, traveling in Maine at roughly the same time gathering material for her masterpiece, The Country of the Pointed Firs, Chansonetta visited with relatives and friends in the nineteenth century way of a woman of leisure, but with one exception; she would take over their kitchens and turn them into darkrooms, mixing the chemicals and printing directly from the original 5 x 7 plates. She never entrusted her negatives to anyone else.

Jewett wrote, ‘One may speak of a visit’s setting in as well as a tide’s . . . a new impulse and refreshing of the social currents and seldom visited bays of memory appeared to have begun.’ I feel this strongly in Chansonetta’s images of Lucy Butts Carville or Aunt Lucy as she was affectionately known, grim though she may look. Chansonetta seems to have taken her portrait in a way that leads us first to see a stereotypical undaunted Yankee; however, the sadness in Aunt Lucy’s eyes, emphasized by a single oval of light is heartbreaking. Chansonetta brought to American rural photography what Thomas Eakins brought to American painting, at more or less the same time: human contradictions and complexities writ large in an individual.

Aunt Lucy appears again in an image that at first glance could also be seen as merely an example of genre and, once again, there is more.The image itself is classical; Lucy’s forward intensity is balanced by a composition of ovals and rectangles while she herself is mythic as she pulls the thread towards her. To call this image a portrait of Fate is perhaps overly fanciful; however, an artist’s not entirely conscious recognition of subtext sometimes seeps through an image.

The writer of the book on Chansonetta describes a photograph of a man and a woman with musical instruments as an example of after-dinner entertainment on the farm. He is clearly knowledgeable and sympathetic to Chansonetta’s work, but I can’t let that single text stand without drawing notice to the quality of focused attention that Chansonetta has captured. The image has a double quality: it could be of two people summoning something inside themselves, as musicians do before they begin to play, or it could be the moment after the music ends, when they are still affected by the music.

Chansonetta has given us this twosome in a moment of intensity similar to what James McNeil Whistler captured in At the Piano, painted in 1859, the year after Chansonetta’s birth. The tension between concentration and repose can be seen too in his Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, painted in 1871 when Chansonetta was thirteen.  Chansonetta came into a visual inheritance — of which she had to have been aware —  of pared down composition used to reveal mental states. Her black and white medium gave her the chromatic means to do what Whistler had in mind when he named his iconic portrait, Arrangement in Grey and Black.

Abbott wrote: ‘Here is living proof of a true photographer whose eye and brain react naturally to the old familiar, the now, the importance of life under our very noses. It is inherent in the medium that photographers see significance in ordinary happenings.’ What was an ordinary happening in Chansonetta’s life? The answer is: work. As composed and posed as her pictures are, they are always images of people caught them in the midst of activity; perhaps she saw herself as part of that dedication to work.

She also captured another ‘ordinary happening,’ one that is more metaphysical. In Maine a visitor is struck by a particular kind of light that runs straight through a house, streaming from a pane of glass in the front door straight out and through a window in the back, entering and exiting unbroken as though a house is only a temporary home for light, and light itself is a living connection that stretches between people. For a photographer, the old familiar is always light. Chansonetta clearly wanted radiance because she chose not to use anti-halation film. Instead she has embraced luminosity itself, coming through the door.

Mother and daughter are packing up; it is the end of the day, and the beginning of the modern era. Perhaps they are going on to one of the many slide shows they presented at towns throughout New England, Chansonetta’s images hand-tinted by Dorothy. Chansonetta had become deaf, claiming that the only lips she could read were those of her daughter. It was easier for her to run the projector, while Dorothy spoke the narrative. I’d give a lot to know what she said.

For the two self-portraits she made, one at the prime of her life and the other at the end, she chose to picture herself beside her camera. Photographer is what Chansonetta was, and how she saw herself. In this last image, she seems embittered. Apparently she always spoke about her lack of money even though her brothers smoothed her financial way throughout her life.

Chansonetta with camera at the end of her life

In the end, it is Dorothy, the faithful daughter who saved her mother’s work after Chansonetta’s death in 1937. But Dorothy was not Susan Eakins who cannily held on to her husband’s paintings until they could be placed together in the right museum and with proper recompense. When Chansonetta’s negatives and glass plates started piling up beyond the limits of Dorothy and her husband’s storage capacity, the husband threw them away. But wait — there is a miraculous tale of discovery: a nephew had protected a trove of her prints that came to light in 1977. It was the revelation of this material that prompted the publication of the book. To this day, Chansonetta is not in the collections of any of the major museums of photography. In the Wikipedia entry for Kingfield, under ‘notable persons’ her brothers are listed but not the photographer, Chansonetta Stanley Emmons.

Abbott again, in her introduction: ‘The quick eye sees the multiple confirmation of that instant when all is right. Strong instinct and brain integrate the relationship of movements, gestures and expressions for that fatal instant click of the shutter.

‘Fatal’ — what an insightful word, for with it Abbott has hit upon a fundamental truth: that every click of the shutter brings on la petite mort, the little death of orgasm whether sexual or optical. And with that click, no matter how many more images may lie ahead, the moment has died. In that truth, all photographers are alike, their differences in time erased by the beating heart of the medium.



  1. stuart frolick says:

    Hi Janet,

    This is another terrific piece. Well done!
    Love your closing lines…


  2. Que bonita! I’m with Stuart about the last paragraph. Also for me, Chansonetta’s “educated eye” was uncannily modern in her ability to evoke the familiar and arouse an emotional response in me that Bertrand Russell described as “the breath of life.”

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