Friday, February 13, 2015

Show on Photo-Secessionist Myra Albert Wiggins Opens this Weekend

This weekend at Hallie Ford, a show on the photography of Myra Albert Wiggins opens!

Myra and Fred Wiggins, 1899
(Image Gallery from Hallie Ford)

Her photography's the big deal - but she's related to a lot of other Salem history, too.

From the show description:
Myra Albert Wiggins (1869-1956) was a Salem photographer and early member of Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secessionist Group. At the turn of the last century, Wiggins was considered one of the foremost women photographers in America. A major exhibition of her work will open February 14 and continue through April 26, 2015, in the Study Gallery and Print Study Center.
The Albert House on Winter and Oak
with Pringle Creek in flood
(the ER is now on the house site,
the house demolished; the view looks across
what became the blind school)
Wiggins photograph
Born and raised in Salem, Oregon, Wiggins was a painter, poet and singer, as well as an instructor, essayist and speaker on art topics. But it was as a photographer that she established herself as an internationally recognized artist. From the late 1890s until 1910, her photographs were exhibited throughout the United States, as well as Paris, Vienna and London.

Wiggins attended Willamette University and Mills College, and in 1891 she began three years of study at the Art Students League in New York, where she received instruction from leading American painters William Merritt Chase, George DeForest Brush and Kenyon Cox. Her photographic interests prompted her to join the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York where she met and impressed a fellow member, Alfred Stieglitz, who was to become the most famous and influential photographer of the era.
Albert-Wiggins Wedding, Nov 24th, 1894:  Oregon State Library
This is likely inside the Albert House
Wiggins self-portrait
She returned to Salem and in 1894 she married Frederick Wiggins. During the next decade and half, Wiggins continued to gain recognition. She was especially known for her touching and award-winning pictorial Dutch genre photographs that focused on women and children. Her work won numerous prizes, including cash awards and even a trip to Paris in 1900.
Apart from her photography, she has lots of transportation connections, and her life bridges the transition from bikes to cars.

As you may recall, she and Fred used bikes often, and Fred sold bikes at his "implement" shop.

Fred Wiggins bike ad, 1904

Crashed July 5, 1905
Died a few days later
Bike and then car dealer Otto J. Wilson was also in her wedding party.

Her father, John H. Albert, was wealthy and an important banker and investor in Salem industry. Unsurprisingly, he was involved in predecessors of the State Highway Commission.

Her mother, Mary Holman, also came from an important early Salem family. It is a sad, sad coda to her life that her death in 1905 likely represents Salem's first automobile fatality.

The show will almost certainly focus on her art, but there is a great web of early Salem history - transportation history and history generally! - that can be drawn radiating out with her at its center.

Postscript, Feb 14th

The Portland Art Museum has a ton of her imagery online!

Unfortunately for our interests, it's mostly the genre stuff and some travel things. There's very little that says, "Salem."

One exception is this street scene of a wagon in the mud. The building on the far right edge looks a little like the Post Office - now Gatke Hall - but it's very hard to say. It would have to be looking down Court or State street, and it's hard to match the rest of the building context. There's a lot of undeveloped, empty space, and the Post Office site was even at this time - 1903 and later than the estimate of 1895 for the image - more developed.

"Salem Scene," circa 1895 - Portland Art Museum
Anyway, this will be a tension in the show, focused as it likely is on the gauzy, pictorial qualities of the imagery, and not on the documentary usefulness of it. (Sorry to be so literal!)


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

updated with link to PAM online collection

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Here's a guess on the image: from 12th street at or near Marion looking south towards the old Capitol? That could account for the tracks and their location on one side of the street as well as the looming bulk in the background. The empty field on the left could be the school's yard (current site of Safeway). Without a dome on the Capitol (1893 installed?), it might be earlier than 1895, though. What do you think?

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Had a chance to visit the show and both the flood image and the mystery image have prints up! But the prints must be contact prints, and they are all pretty dinky and dainty, and it's hard to see detail.

Here's a view of 12th and Center from the school that doesn't match very well with the hypothesis that the photo is from Marion and 12th. More than anything, the RR is on the wrong side of the street.

So that seems like a good piece of evidence against the guess.

But where in Salem are the tracks pushed so far to one side of the road? Front Street seems like a real hard match. But maybe that's where to be looking...

More generally, Wiggins is not at all interested in place. This was a little surprising. All the genre interiors and soft-focus exteriors are situated to have nearly generic scenery and backgrounds.

Her aesthetic is placeless and timeless.

The earlier outdoor scenery with Mt. Jefferson, and one image that had the First Methodist steeple off in the far distance, were the only images that alluded to a place or time. And if you didn't know to look for the steeple - weren't clued in by the show's labels - it's so tiny that other viewers wouldn't find it meaningful.

The contrast with Constance Fowler's early imagery, deeply rooted in place, could not be more striking.

Is the way Wiggins erased Salem from her imagery an expression of the provincial's desire to seem more cosmopolitan and to speak to a more cosmopolitan - read: NY - audience? Hard to say.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...


I know that Photo Secession and Pictorialism are all about atmosphere and not realism, but I still expected Wiggins to show more interest in Salem as a place.

So then a question that seems reasonable is: Is the lack of interest in place among all the members of the Photo Secession a sign that they were all provincials coming to the big city or with ambitions for success in the big city? Without reducing the aesthetic to sociology, is there nevertheless an ingredient of social origins and social formation here?

(The Great Gatsby, as a slightly later example seems apt.)