Scenes from a Time Gone By
A vintage photography exhibit at the Cahoon Museum of American Art showcases Cape Cod in days past.
A lot can change over the course of a century, and nowhere is this truer than in the realm of photography. The clunky and rudimentary equipment of yesteryear has given way to once unimaginable technology available to the masses. But the basics that comprise a quality photograph remain the same: an interesting angle, an artful arrangement, and a perfect pose can capture a moment in time.
Take a long look at the images in “Revisiting the Past: Photographs of Old Cape Cod” at the Cahoon Museum of American Art in Cotuit for insight into a different era. The exhibit, which opens on July 9, features more than 50 photos shot in communities throughout the Cape, from Falmouth to Provincetown, between 1850 and 1930. When viewed together, the photos tell a story of Cape Cod as it once was, before the Sagamore and Bourne Bridges brought vacationers in droves. “The main reason we came up with this idea is to show how important photography has been to the Cape,” says Richard Waterhouse, director of the Cahoon Museum, “and to show how much the Cape has changed in 100 years.”
To create the exhibit, Waterhouse asked the Osterville Historical Museum, the Santuit/Cotuit Historical Society, the Sandwich Glass Museum, Harwich Historical Society, the Orleans Historical Society, and other museums and organizations around the Cape to comb through photography archives to find gems. The criteria were few, but important: age—whether an original print or a recent print developed from the original negative, the photos are all well over 50 years old—and quality. The organizations submitted their recommendations and the Cahoon selected the pieces for the final lineup. “We’re trying to include everything,” Waterhouse says. “We have some portraits in the show. We have some landscapes.”
Some of the images in the exhibit are original prints made from glass plate negatives—a standard photographic practice at the turn of the century—while others are contemporary prints made from those original glass plates. “Everybody loves to see those old photos,” says Jennifer Morgan Williams, director of the Osterville Historical Museum. “It’s really about exploring the history that’s all around us.”
The Osterville Historical Museum is contributing a few images, including a 30-inch panorama of the East Bay Lodge. Osterville was a destination point a century ago for some of America’s most powerful families, Morgan Williams says. The Duponts, the Mellons, and other families tethered to wealthy business magnates would visit in the summer for a month at a time, and they would stay at one of about a dozen inns in the village—including East Bay Lodge on East Bay Road. While the lodge fell into disrepair before being torn down in the mid-1990s, the photo on display in “Revisiting the Past” depicts the inn in its early 1900s heyday, with its impressive two main buildings and, in the distance, the waters of East Bay. A man stands in the driveway at the center of the image, while a woman sews on the porch and children practice archery in the side yard. “People are always asking about the East Bay Lodge,” Morgan Williams says. “It was fancy, elegant, old Cape Cod.”
In those days, sailing was a favorite activity for summer visitors, Morgan Williams says, and many who stayed at the lodge commissioned local boat builders, C. Worthington and Harris Crosby to construct one of their famous wooden boats, the Wianno Senior, or a popular catboat. “Revisiting the Past” also features an image of the catboats, sailing on the East Bay, circa 1904. Built for agility, the boats feature a large rudder and a mast that’s distinctively located near the vessel’s bow.
Morgan Williams says many of the Osterville Historical Museum’s photographs were donated by residents. The older images often require restoration work, and for this, she turns to husband-and-wife team Jim and Camilla Richman of The Artistic Framer in Osterville. “It’s always incredible to see,” Jim says. “It’s history—the country’s history—and you want to try to preserve it as best you can.”
Since the business opened in 1990, Jim says customers have brought in thousands of photographs over the years that need to be touched up or repaired. Some even bring tintypes—positive exposures that were printed on thin pieces of metal rather than film, which were common during the mid- to late-19th century. But tintype images are extremely fragile and can be damaged if exposed to direct light. To Jim’s surprise, some people, unaware of this, walk in holding the images in their hands.
The degree to which time takes a toll varies from photograph to photograph. Some images are torn or missing parts. Many are fading or losing their color. One photo Jim worked on was so brittle that fragments of the image would fall off with the slightest touch. Another—a portrait of a woman printed as an oil/pastel photograph that dated back to the 1880s or earlier—arrived at The Artistic Framer having been scratched, folded in half, and stored in an attic for roughly 75 years. Camilla says additional problems that commonly plague old photographs are smudges, creases, and, particularly common on the Cape, water stains.
To start, the Richmans analyze the photo. Next, they decide whether to digitally restore the image—the road most often taken. “There are a lot of different [digital] techniques you can do,” Jim says, “but even though you’re using Photoshop, there’s still a lot of manual work involved.” Digitally manipulating images can take a lot of time, and Jim has spent 16 to 20 hours working on an individual photo. Today, Camilla notes it’s rare for customers to request an image be restored manually, as the vast majority ask for a digital fix. The main thing, she says, is “people want it to look right.”
When the photograph is finished, the Richmans usually frame each piece to museum quality standards. The image is protected by using specially filtered glass, museum glass, or museum acrylic. For older pieces, a 100-percent cotton rag matte is used as well as acid-free backing and supports. In addition, Camilla speaks with customers about how to properly store their photographs—for example, avoiding hanging the image in direct sunlight or storing it in a damp basement.
Despite the challenges presented by older images, Camilla says she enjoys working on the photos, especially those depicting scenes of the Cape. On occasion, older customers bring in photos of themselves when they were children, summering locally with family. One customer brought in a photo of a picnic scene shot in the 1880s—it’s the same sort of everyday scene found throughout the “Revisiting the Past”collection.
“This is who we all are. This is our history,” says Camilla. “Even if the photographs don’t belong to you personally, it’s the immediate history we all share on the Cape. It’s fascinating. We’re in a very special spot.”