By Judith Wentzell, MHS Volunteer
What good fortune I have, as a part-time volunteer in the Brown Research Library at Maine Historical Society, to prepare the photographs of Chansonetta Stanley Emmons for all to see on Maine Memory Network. Born in Kingfield, Maine in 1858, Chansonetta was an adventurous woman of the late 19th and early 20th century with stamina, perseverance, skill, a point of view, and an artist’s eye.
Her surviving photographs, taken primarily between 1900 and 1930, range from staged scenes with friends and relatives reflecting an earlier lifestyle to photographs taken in Europe and Canada. There are scenes of Maine farmers at work, portraits of homes and villages in rural Maine, trips to coastal towns in New England and a set of well over 100 hand-colored glass lantern slides. These were taken in 1926 on a trip to South Carolina where she photographed Charleston architecture, public gardens, and tenant farmers. Finding a very few photographs of a trip she took to Colorado is a reminder that we know many of her photographs were destroyed.
The collection is in a number of formats. There are 5”x 7” glass plate negatives, prints developed on Velox paper, mounted prints, and the lantern slides. Some images were taken with a roll film camera. Regardless of format, Chansonetta was adept at standing in just the right place to take a photograph. Her images are clear and sensitive to her subjects. She had no artificial light source, so therefore became skilled in determining exposure with only natural light. She developed and processed all her work.
Chansonetta (as I am on a first-name basis with her after these many months) was born to a farm family, the only daughter of seven children. Her twin brothers Freelan Oscar and Francis Edgar went on to considerable success as inventors of the Stanley Dry Plate photographic process and the Stanley Steamer automobile. From them she was introduced to photography.
However, she had already started on her path for a career in the arts while attending Western State Normal School in Farmington. She enrolled planning to become a teacher and graduated having decided to be artist. Chansonetta moved to Boston to further her career. In 1887 she was married. Her daughter, Dorothy, was born in 1891. It was after the death of her husband seven years later that Chansonetta focused more on photography and in 1904 bought her Century camera. She was fortunate to have brothers who could support her in a comfortable manner for the rest of her life as they provided her with an apartment and automobiles. She did not have to work although she earned some income from her photography.
Chansonetta had a lifelong partner in her travels with her daughter, Dorothy, who grew into the role of assistant and chauffeur. They traveled together to all the locations of her photographs including almost every summer back to friends and family in Kingfield. When Chansonetta died in 1937, Dorothy kept close watch on her mother’s legacy.
I have seen and processed over 500 photographs, with perhaps that same number to go. This may not seem like many in an age of digital cameras. Now the average person has a small camera or a cell phone. There is no need to purchase film or have film processed and printed. Chansonetta lugged around a heavy view camera with tripod and a glass plate for most every photograph she took. Wearing dresses of the time, she must have had some hiking skills to walk to many of her locations!
Along with discovering beautiful and surprising images as I open each envelope, last summer I walked in the photographer’s footsteps at Wohelo Camps on the shores of Sebago Lake. In the camp records Mrs. Chansonetta Emmons and Dorothy Emmons are listed as being campers for the 1918 season.
Not all Chansonetta’s photographs are precisely captioned. Luckily, a few photographs of a dramatic performance in a woodsy area and photographs of women lounging on the rocky shore of a lake were labelled “Wohelo.” A brief search on the Internet led me to Mark Van Winkle, the fourth-generation owner/director of this iconic and historic Maine camp for girls. On a glorious summer day in July of 2018, I was given not only a tour and a delicious lunch with campers but also a chance to view hundreds of Chansonetta’s glass plate and celluloid negatives, all taken at the camp between 1918 and 1923. Perhaps she was a friend of the illustrious founders/owners, Dr. Luther and Charlotte Gulick or perhaps it was employment – we do not know.
Most of what we do know now about Chansonetta comes from Marius B. Peladeau, who has been a force in Maine art and historic circles for many years. It was Peladeau who purchased the collection of Chansonetta’s photographs, cataloged them and assured that they ultimately went to the Stanley Museum. It is this collection that now finds a home for safe keeping at the Maine Historical Society. In 1977 Peladeau published “Chansonetta: The Life and Photographs of Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, 1858 – 1937.” I and many others first learned about her from this book as well as from exhibits held at the same time.
My personal adventure with Chansonetta is not soon to end – there are still many boxes to open, explore, and catalog. I look forward to seeing lives and locales she captured that are now lost to us a century later. I hope my work with her photographs will play at least a small role in bringing a widespread appreciation and enjoyment of Chansonetta Stanley Emmons and her work.
For more of her photographs, be sure to browse now and periodically on Maine Memory Network. More photographs will continually be added to the database.