Snapshots of old-time new tech
Mennonite Village Photography exhibition features three dozen prints from photography trailblazers who captured portraits from 1890 to 1940
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/07/2022 (321 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
If you’ve ever wanted to picture yourself in the past, an exhibit of photos from about 1890 to 1940 invites you to do just that, by taking a selfie in front of a century-old backdrop.
That backdrop, decorated with painted curtains and curlicues, is clearly visible in several of the portraits shot by Peter G. Hamm, who died in 1965, leaving a collection of 400 glass and film negatives. Known as the village photographer, Hamm captured early 20th-century life in his Mennonite street village of Neubergthal, now a national historic site.
Along with photographs from three of his contemporaries, Hamm’s work is on display at a summer exhibit titled Mennonite Village Photography at MHC Gallery at Canadian Mennonite University.
The three dozen photos on display — some blown up to life-size dimensions — depict various aspects of village life in these sectarian communities from a time when cameras were not household items. These young camera enthusiasts offered their photographic services to their family, friends and neighbours, also developing the images into postcard-sized photographs for personal display, said Roland Sawatzky, a member of the Mennonite Historic Arts Committee, which curated the exhibit
“These are villagers taking pictures of themselves for their own purposes,” Sawatzky, curator of history at Manitoba Museum.
Originally intended to coincide with the 2020 publication of book featuring 91 photographs by the same photographers, the Winnipeg exhibit was postponed two years due to gathering restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19. The photos did go on display briefly in 2020 at Altona’s Gallery in the Park.
Chosen from hundreds of images, the photographs provide a picture of life, death, farming practices and leisure activities of Mennonite living villages on both sides of the Red River in the early 20th century.
“In terms of Manitoba history, it’s a really great snapshot of a sectarian group in a moment of great change,” said Sawatzky, referring to the expansion of agricultural markets, increased mobility and the adoption of technology.
The featured photographers were mostly single, younger men with a few extra dollars to spend on camera and developing equipment, said Conrad Stoesz of Mennonite Heritage Archives and a member of the Mennonite Historic Arts Committee. They had to contend with Mennonite leaders frowning on their hobby, using the argument that posing for photographs could lead to excessive pride.
“This is an ongoing issue,” Stoesz said about the argument against making graven images, still followed by some conservative Mennonite groups.
“This technology, this hobby is not benign.”
As recently as 2018, one conservative Mennonite leader wrote about the prevalence of taking selfie photos with smart phones, saying it was inappropriate.
“How could this possibly edify the Christian?” wondered Conrad Barkman of Swansea, Sask. in the Feb. 4, 2018, issue of Messenger of Truth, a bi-weekly publication of Church of God, Mennonite.
The exhibit biographies point out how photographer Johann E. Funk of Schoenwiese was admonished by his minister for taking pictures, and later repurposed some of 13×18 cm negatives as windows in his chicken coop. Heinrich D. Fast of Gruenfeld was encouraged by his church to give up photography when he married in 1918 and sold his camera to his brother Jake. Peter Hamm’s negatives were stored in a barn for decades, to be rediscovered in the 1980s and 1990s. Images left by Peter H. Klippenstein of Altbergthal were distributed among family members and later collected and offered to the Mennonite Heritage Archives.
“We’re just lucky (these) survived and we don’t know how much we lost,” Sawatzky said of the images collected as the foundation for the exhibit.
Despite all odds, some images were preserved, providing a glimpse into the past of mourning families gathering around an open casket of a loved one, squirmy (and out of focus) children seated on laps while their parents stare stoically into the camera, as well as people enjoying outings, doing cartwheels or posing with their bicycles, cars or sleighs.
“I think we often think of the past in black-and-white terms and as simplistic,” said Stoesz of the variety of portraits and candid shots chosen for the exhibit.
“The past wasn’t static and boring, but full of pain, loss and joy.”
Several of the portraits show the view of the eye behind the camera as well. Lacking a store-front studio set-up, these amateurs carried their backdrops with them, or improvised with blankets and tablecloths. Although the photographers cropped out extraneous backgrounds of doors, windows and wall decorations when printing the photos, Stoesz and other members of the committee decided to print the whole image to tell another story.
That decision adds to the interest of the exhibit, providing an unintended behind-the-scenes perspective when people were posing in their Sunday best, said Sarah Hodges-Kolisnyk, photo historian and recently appointed director of MHC Gallery.
“You can see the hand of the photographer and you see life going on around the makeshift studio,” she said.
The photographs also portray the tension between old ways and new innovations, said Sawatzky. As photography was becoming more accessible, these young photographers took advantage of the growing demand for portraits and along the way, depicted the changes occurring in their villages.
“These teenagers are picking this up and saying they want to be part of the modern world, but they’re also documenting the traditional world,” said Sawatzky.
The exhibit runs at MHC Gallery, 600 Shaftesbury Blvd. until Sept. 10. Admission by donation. Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Saturday.
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Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.