Back in the 1970s, Sag Harbor’s Greg Therriault was refinishing the floor of a small house he owned on Hampton Road called “The Ivy Cottage” when he discovered a series of small, metal rectangular objects nailed to the floorboards.
When he pulled up one of those objects, he saw an image on the other side and realized they were tintypes — photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries of people who once populated Eastville, the historically African-American neighborhood where he lived.
How the photographs got there or why they were nailed to the floor remains a mystery. But those tintypes, along with cabinet cards and other photographs donated by residents over the years, are now part of the Eastville Community Historical Society’s collection. From October 1 to 8, 29 of them will be on view in “Collective Identity: Photographs & Tintype Images from 1882 to 1915” at the Shelter Island Historical Society. On on October 1, curator Donnamarie Barnes and Eastville Community Historical Society executive director Georgette Grier-Key talk about the images at the Shelter Island Historical Society.
In an interview with the Reporter earlier this week, Ms. Barnes, a photographer and former photo editor at People magazine, explained that unlike traditional negative photography, tintypes were one of a kind — like Polaroids. In the 19th century, they were also less expensive to create.
“This kind of photography was accessible to everyone, but it was still a luxury, not a necessity,” Ms. Barnes said. “These people would go have their portrait taken. You’d assume they’d get just one or two. But they exchanged portraits with each other in a wonderful community sharing sort of way.”
Ms. Barnes first saw the images in 2014 and she spent a year researching and archiving them with Southampton’s Brian Luckey, another former People magazine employee. She often asked older Eastville residents for help in identifying the subjects and though she enjoyed researching the people in the photographs, she was also taken by William G. Howard, the photographer.
“He had a studio from 1882 to 1915 on Washington Street,” she said. “I decided he was the photographer for all the images because the photographic style was consistent for both the cabinet cards and the tintypes — the effects, the studio props, the way he hand-tinted images. That helped a lot.”
Ms. Barnes, was particularly impressed by the care Mr. Howard took in composing his portraits.
“William Howard becomes the hero of the story,” she said. “When you look at how he photographed these people, it wasn’t ‘Stand there and give me your money.’ He shows them with dignity and respect, and their personality comes through.”
By way of example, Ms. Barnes points to the image of Augustus Johnson (above).
“He was a handyman and he had one arm. He dresses in his best suit and goes to the studio,” she said. “He may have been concerned about how his hook looked, but you don’t see that in the photograph. He looks like a gentleman. That sensitivity comes from the photographer and the way he made his subjects feel.”
“Collective Identity: Photographs & Tintype Images from 1882 to 1915” presentation is Saturday, October 1, 4 to 6 p.m. The exhibit runs October 3 to October 8 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily at the Shelter Island Historical Society.