The Olive Tree
Maine Streets Exhibit visits Fogler Library
In our fast-paced world filled with modern technology, few of us need to be convinced that the last hundred years have brought significant changes to the state of Maine and the Northeast. However, it may be hard to find evidence more compelling than a collection of glass plate negatives owned by the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. Part of this collection, Maine Streets: selections from the Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Company, was on display at Fogler Library for the month of October. An October 7th presentation in the library’s Special Collection Department featured the collection’s archivist, Kevin Johnson, and Kent Ryden, Director of the American and New England Studies Program at the University of Southern Maine.
In March 2007, the Penobscot Marine Museum acquired a collection of more than 37,000 historic glass plate negatives. The earliest date to 1909, when a young entrepreneur named R. Herman Cassens started a postcard company, the Eastern Maine Illustrating and Publishing Company in Belfast. Cassens had a dream of photographing the transcontinental trail from Maine to California. He and his small crew of photographers began by traveling through rural New England and New York focusing their lens on locally known landmarks and street scenes. The Eastern photographers probably had no idea of the history they were preserving with their “scenic views” of each town. Although his dream of photographing all 48 states was never realized, Cassen’s company managed to make tens of thousands of glass plate negatives of New England and upstate New York between 1909 and 1947.
Penobscot Marine Museum archivist, Kevin Johnson, selected just over 30 images to create a traveling exhibit of framed prints. Johnson has been connected with this collection since attending a Rockport College/Maine Photography workshop in 2003. His role in working with the materials gradually increased until a flood in the building where the negatives were stored prompted the school to donate the collection to the Penobscot Marine Museum; Johnson was “donated” along with them.
Johnson’s familiarity with the images recently allowed him to spot negatives that had been stolen from the collection. The Maine Historic Preservation Commission notified Johnson and allowed him to preview plates that were about to go up for auction. Johnson could see immediately that they had been taken from the archiving project, still packed in archival boxes and envelopes. This allowed for the recovery of 300 plates, many of which were images of Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. One of these Bar Harbor photographs will be added to the exhibit to premier in Orono.
The October 7th presentation offered different but complimentary insights. Johnson spoke about how and why a Belfast postcard company created these images. Kent Ryden considered how we can “read” these images in order to better understand how photos and other sources helped construct Maine’s real and imagined sense of place. "Like all good historic sources, these photos raise many questions, ”notes Carol Toner of the Maine Studies Program and one of the event co-sponsors,”For example, do these photos represent 'authentic' Maine, or do they commodify the state? Are we seeing what the photographer intended us to see?”
“The library is pleased to have the opportunity to host these speakers and to bring this exhibit to UMaine and its surrounding communities,” noted Gretchen Gfeller, Web and Public Relations Specialist at Fogler Library. “These photographs are fascinating on many levels. They provide a unique glimpse of another time, leaving the viewer with a sense of the continuity of place through history.”
Both the presentation and the exhibit were sponsored by the Penobscot Marine Museum, the Maine Studies Program, and Fogler Library.
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