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Pictures Tell the Tale

Their age makes them all the more impressive. They are crisp, clean, and expertly framed. They are slices of life, dwelling on the architecture, dress, social gatherings, and work of a different bygone era. They reveal Cape Cod in a simpler day.

More than a century after being photographed, images from a storied Orleans photographer rekindle memories of old Cape Cod.

Pictures Tell the Tale, Cape Cod LIFE July 2010 |

Henry Knowles Cummings, who was a skilled photographer and entrepreneur, was an Orleans native. Photo courtesy of the H.K. Cummings collection, Snow Library, Orleans.

From September 3 to October 30, more than a century after being shot, a selection of H.K. Cummings’ glass plate photographs will be on display at the Marion Craine Gallery, at the Snow Library in Orleans. The 38-image selection is a mere fraction of the collection of 750 photographs donated by Cummings’ niece in 1964, and this year marks the third time since Orleans’ 1997 bicentennial that selections of the photographs have been unveiled to the public. The images document the people of the Mid and Outer Cape with special emphasis on Orleans, Cummings’ hometown, at the turn of the century. And all these many years later, the photos continue to impress and, in at least one instance, perplex.

Henry Knowles Cummings was born in Orleans in 1865 and remained a resident until his death his 1953. His ancestors were merchants and sea captains, and his wife, Theresa, daughter of Captain Alfred Paine, spent much of her time at sea. The Cummings family owned a store at the center of town where Cummings began working at age 17 and continued for the next seven decades. In addition to being a skilled photographer, Cummings was a hard-working entrepreneur, establishing a local telephone company with his brother, George. (The venture was short-lived however, as New England Telephone and Telegraph arrived in the area just five years later and put the brothers out of business.)

Pictures Tell the Tale

Cummings took this photograph of his brother, Eben, standing over the front of his boat pulling in a net of crabs he caught. Appropriately titled, “Eben L. Cummings Taking Up Rake”.

Cummings’ passion for photography began at age 20. Though he considered it to be just a hobby, Cummings spent much of his free time hidden underneath the black fabric shroud of his tripod-mounted wood-frame camera. His subjects—often chosen from among his and Theresa’s family and friends—would diligently hold their positions for nearly five minutes to allow the slow exposure process to finish. Finding willing participants for such a lengthy process may seem like a difficult task, but according to Bobi Eldridge, the project coordinator for the collection and a volunteer archivist, Cummings had an engaging and amiable personality that made finding subjects an easy task. “He really made everyone feel completely at ease,” she says. “The most impressive thing about the collection is his connection to the people that he photographed. He was a man that made people feel comfortable. They would get in any position.”

Pictures Tell the Tale

Cummings’ skills with the camera are evident in the surviving photos. Despite the primitive technology of the time, his architectural and land- scape images are highly detailed. His ability to capture crisp renderings of moving images without creating blurry photographs baffles those who have worked closely with the collection. In one particular photo, Eben L. Cummings Taking Up Rake, the photographer captures his brother standing atop a boat and hauling his catch out of the sea. “How Cummings could sit in the back of that boat and get that image, none of us have been able to figure it out,” says Eldridge. “The boat is rocking and moving. That’s really an amazing image.”

Visitors are drawn to the shows, Eldridge says, because Cummings’ photos provide a rare glimpse into life on the Cape at the turn of the 20th century. The collection manages to mix newsworthy events like shipwrecks and the construction of historic buildings with everyday occurrences. Many local landmarks captured by Cummings’ lens still stand today, including the photographer’s own stately childhood home, now known as The Captain Linell House near Skaket Beach. The collection also includes photos of the picturesque Chatham Light, the foundations of today’s grandiose Ocean Edge resort in East Brewster, and historic Cape Cod style homes scattered along the Cranberry Highway and the smaller, winding roads of Orleans. This sort of collection is extremely rare, Eldridge states. “You don’t see collections like this, in their entirety, that tell an entire story of a town,” she says.

Pictures Tell the Tale

In addition to learning about the history of the Cape, Eldridge also says that the photographs allow many locals to learn more about their ancestors. Though archivists found Cummings’ personal journal 11 years ago, his entries about photos contain only the first names of his subjects. Eldridge says that visitors have been very helpful in helping to fill in the missing pieces. “Now when we have a show there is always somebody that comes up and tells us that that’s their great great uncle in that picture,” says Eldridge. The information given by knowledgeable residents is priceless to those who have worked so hard to get the collection in order.

Pictures Tell the Tale

Pictures Tell the Tale

By his 87th birthday, Cummings had amassed more than a thousand photographs of Orleans scenes and residents. He never considered himself an artist, but the collection housed at the Snow Library is a testament—not just to his skill and passion for photography, but to his love of the Cape and the town where he lived out his days.

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