"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Friday, September 3, 2010

Nova Scotia Connections -- Picture Worth A Thousand Words

During her life, Elizabeth Bishop had photographic portraits done by a number of well-known photographers: Josef Breitenbach, George Platt Lynes and Rollie McKenna, to name just a few. For someone as shy, reticent and private as Elizabeth Bishop, there are a remarkable number of photographs of her at every stage of her life, including from her childhood.

Indeed, Elizabeth Bishop’s family started to record her life in this visual medium almost from birth. Two of the earliest photographs of Bishop are found at Acadia University Archives — AUA has a large collection of Bishop’s family material which it has digitized; to see this collection go to the permanent links section of this blog and click on “Elizabeth Bishop’s Nova Scotia Family at Acadia University.”

One of the things immediately apparent when one looks at this family material is not only how many photographs there are (hundreds), but how vast the range of years of their creation. This family material (officially called “The Bulmer-Bowers-Hutchinson-Sutherland family fonds,” which is a list of the names of the creators and custodians of this material) begins in the mid-1800s with early ferrotype/tintype photos of Elizabeth Bishop’s maternal ancestors. The formats for the photographic images range from Victorian carte-de-visites, postcards, and early film prints and extend right up to those dreadful instant polaroid snapshots from the 1970s and 1980s, the ones that developed right before your eyes. What one sees when looking at this family material is a sort of history of photography in microcosm.

Bishop’s maternal family members clearly enjoyed having their picture taken. They not only sat for many studio portraits throughout their lives, they also were avid amateur photographers, recording their own daily lives in ways that are rather remarkable. Photography was an established technology by the 1910s and 1920s, but cameras were not as ubiquitous as they are today (and there was no such thing as Facebook!). However, the Bulmer family devoted a good deal of time recording themselves on film.

Elizabeth Bishop was born into a family quite serious about pictures. The first images of her that I mention above were essentially snapshots, not professional studio portraits. As far as we can tell, these pictures were taken only a few weeks after she was born, taken by her own parents. But, as a baby she was also the subject of formal portraits. The first such portraits were taken in Worcester, MA. When Bishop came to live in Nova Scotia in 1915, her maternal family also arranged to have her portrait done, in Truro, N.S. (near Great Village, the largest town in the county). The photographer that the family chose to do the portrait was a fascinating man named J.E. Sponagle.

As a young man, Sponagle had gone off to the American mid-west where he attended the Guerin School of Photography in St. Louis, Missouri. Fitz W. Guerin is still a controversial figure in the history of photography – having produced elaborate genre-photographs which today seem heavily Victorian, filled with drama and bathos and innocent erotica. Just what a young boy from Nova Scotia took away from his experience with Guerin might be a mystery, but Sponagle came back a dedicated photographer. He returned home and set up Sponagle’s Studio in Truro, which he operated for 50 years. He became one of the most respected and “best-known” citizens of the town, involved in all manner of community activity. His photographic archive, a good deal of which is found at the Colchester Historical Society Museum in Truro, is said to be “a pictoral history of the person and events of twentieth century Truro.” Sponagle died in a car accident in 1961 at the age of 78.

J.E. Sponagle (Courtesy of Colchester Historical Society Museum)

According to his obituary, one of Sponagle’s “earliest subjects was the famous Col. William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Coady,” who was a friend of Fitz Guerin. Well, another of his early subjects was the famous poet Elizabeth Bishop, long before she was a poet or famous. (I wonder what she would have thought about being in Coady’s company.)

Sponagle had a way with his young subject, something clear from the charming portrait of Bishop he created around 1916, when she was five. He would not have been long home from his Missouri sojourn when he took this photograph, a young man just starting to establish himself as a respected artist and businessman.

Elizabeth Bishop by J.E. Sponagle, 1916

The five year old Bishop was already very familiar with cameras. As she grew, she herself became interested in taking her own pictures (she and her Vassar classmates were know to experiment with photography in the 1930s; she often sent photographs of Brazil to her aunt and cousin in Nova Scotia during the 1950s; there is a delightful photograph of her holding her camera, taken by Ashley Brown in 1965 in Salvador, Brazil). She wasn’t always happy with the photographic portraits done of her, even by well-known photographers, but, like her family, she knew that having her picture taken was expected and necessary – it was an old, established practice, something most of us submit to with varying degrees of acceptance.

I wonder what J.E. Sponagle would think if he knew that the little girl who sat for him in his studio in 1916 became a world-famous writer, that by capturing this image of Bishop at such a tender age, he was helping to hold onto her for posterity. The old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” does have validity – what this portrait of Bishop means might very well be different for each person who looks at it. Someone recently said to me that in Bishop’s poems she is observing so acutely, embodying observation so accurately, that it is as if her poems themselves are staring back you. I thought this observation most profound.

In the photographs of Bishop still in existence, like this delightful and expressive image, we have a chance to look directly into her eyes – sort of – and wonder about what we see there, and what she sees, as her direct gaze looks back out at us.

1 comment:

  1. My name is John Greville. J. E. Sponagle was my mother's (Joan Payzant Greville (ne Sponagle) Dad.
    Mother passed away Jan 13 and I am doing a final posting to the Toronto Star Remembrance page of photos, many of then by her Dad.
    Here is a link to the Toronto Star Remembrance page for Mum:
    NOTE: This page will only be on the star site until February 13th.
    Or you can go to thestar.com, news, deaths, search Greville.
    I would like to include a link to this very kind Story in an email I am sending to be a final update and thanks to all our friends for their support.
    If you are interested in any more info or photos please contact me at grevillej@rogers.com.
    My cousin works at the Halifax Museum, I can put you in touch with him if you like.
    Mum was a Bluenoser right to the end, we were so lucky.