Another Side of Seneca Ray Stoddard: New Show at State Museum Presents the Photographer as Social Critic
In the full-scale exhibition “Seneca Ray Stoddard: Capturing the Adirondacks” at the New York State Museum in Albany is a photo by Stoddard titled “The Color Line.” Dated 1879, it shows affluent children and adults crowding the verandah at the original Fort William Henry Hotel in Lake George (an architectural wonder before it burned down in 1909, as so many of these photos reveal). Seated below them—significantly—on a balustrade are more than a dozen African-American men, presumably hotel employees, who are leered at by an elderly woman in the far left corner.
“The Color Line” is one example from the more than 100 photos in “Capturing the Adirondacks” that provides a different way of looking at Seneca Ray Stoddard’s photography—a way that hasn’t been fully explored before (especially outside the Adirondacks). It is, in fact, the first time since these 101 photos were acquired by the New York State Museum in 1972 that they have been publicly exhibited. Most come from a collection accumulated by Maitland De Sormo, the Adirondack historian who rescued Stoddard’s work from oblivion in the 1960s, as well as the Chapman Historical Museum in Glens Falls, and the New York State Library. “Capturing the Adirondacks” remains at the NYS museum through February 21.
In the Adirondacks, Stoddard (1844-1917) is celebrated as a native photographer of landscapes, placid life in the wilderness, as well as a conservation advocate who influenced public opinion with his photography, clever writings, and lectures to help establish the “forever wild” clause in the New York State constitution in 1894. “Capturing the Adirondacks” honors this established legacy, but it gestures elsewhere as well. It presents Stoddard as a photographer who documented people “from diverse economic and cultural settings, from the very rich to the much less so,” and as an artist who had “a dedicated intent” to explore those social and economic disparities.
Much of the work in this exhibit is of the upper classes, of course. In the late 1800s, they sought an escape from congested, industrial towns and cities and found it in the Adirondacks. Stoddard was there with his camera to document, rather romantically, the chic hotels and comfortable playground they built in his backyard (he lived in Glens Falls). However, when juxtaposed with a photo like “The Color Line,” the exhibit starts to make an interesting case for Stoddard as a social critic. His romantic images of wealth begin to raise questions about class and race. Other photos here do the same, though to a lesser degree: “An Adirondack Home,” for example, which shows a backwoods woman leaning in the doorway of a tiny log shack, as well as Stoddard’s photos of working-class loggers, and one shot of a Native-American encampment on Lake George.
But do these alone make Stoddard a social critic? It would appear not. “The Color Line” is an anomaly in the exhibition, not the rule (though it does alter conventional wisdom about Stoddard). Besides, Stoddard strikes one as being too practical of a photographer to be a social critic. He too had an entrepreneurial spirit, not unlike his affluent subjects. He published successful tourist guidebooks with his photos when some might have considered that a cheapening of his art. With his photos of the upper classes, moreover, Stoddard was able to sell the Adirondacks to politicians and the public as an elegant tourist destination worth preserving. Had he been a social critic, few would have given him the time of day.
Even so, “Capturing the Adirondacks” is still an extensive exhibition with some of Stoddard’s finest landscape photos, those that played a crucial role for the Adirondacks. With a subtle, smart technique, Stoddard was able to shape the public’s understanding of the New York wilderness. The exhibit features, for example, three photos of the Fort Ticonderoga ruins, taken in the 1870s and 80s long before the reconstruction. Here the man-made rubble sharply contrasts with the vitality of the landscape. (One photo, titled “The Parade Ground,” could even be an ironic quip about war.) Stoddard took other photos of ruins in the Adirondack as well, suggesting the impermanence—and insignificance—of anything built or imagined by man in relation to the land.
Stoddard, however, could be more explicit with his conservation message. Twenty years after Matthew Brady took his iconic photos of ravaged bodies on the Civil War battlefields, Stoddard captured a different kind of destruction: desolate acres of land stripped of forest, and hundreds of abandoned logs sitting in piles of snow. Juxtaposed with his blooming vista photos, Stoddard’s message could not have been clearer.
“Capturing the Adirondacks” features other rarely seen works as well, such as a few early landscape paintings by Stoddard, completed before he decided to focus on photography (which, it turns out, was an excellent decision). He also took a number of compelling photos of the Statue of Liberty from inside the crown, as well as from inside the torch. Early editions of his guidebooks such as “Lake George Illustrated” with covers he designed are on display as well. Included with these is the original, ornate portfolio he created for William West Durant shortly after the latter built the great camp Sagamore and hired Stoddard to photograph it.
If this exhibition marks a long overdue break for Stoddard, there’s still a long way to go. Lighting in the gallery was poor, which meant a lot of time staring at shadows, and a couple of Stoddard’s photos were placed on a door that was in use. With that said, by exhibiting a photo like “The Color Line,” the museum has inched Stoddard toward wider recognition. Stoddard’s photos of the Horicon ladies sketch club may not reach an audience far beyond New York, but a photo like “The Color Line” just might.