“Water and Light,” a selection of images from Seneca Ray Stoddard’s Lake George portfolio exhibited at the Chapman Historical Museum last summer, has been reimagined as a new, ground-breaking book on Stoddard’s photography.
The 160-page volume, featuring 150 images selected and reproduced by Chapman director Tim Weidner, includes interpretive and biographical essays by Joseph Cutshall-King, the historian who led the Chapman when the Museum acquired its Stoddard collection from Maitland De Sormo in 1977.
If you know Stoddard best as a guide-book author, conservationist, map maker, social commentator, explorer or sailor, this volume will introduce you to another side of his many, many-sided talent – an art photographer, interested in light and composition, a forerunner of Alfred Stieglitz.
“Stoddard is famous as a documentarian. We wanted to take a different look at his body of work. In fact, we excluded any photograph that appeared to be documenting an event,” said Tim Weidner.
From the collections at the museum, which is the repository of more than 4000 photographs, manuscripts, maps and publications of Stoddard’s, Weidner selected images of Lake George that best capture the interplay of water and light.
“In his images he used water as a key compositional element, and he manipulated natural light to create delightful visual effects,” Weidner said.
In the opinion of Joseph Cutshall King, Stoddard is not only one of the greatest 19th century American photographers, but an artist equal in rank to some of the finest painters of the era.
Scholars and curators trace Stoddard’s interest in purely formal visual effects to his early ambition to be a painter.
One early profile of the photographer, written in 1898 by Lake George Mirror editor W.H. Tippetts notes, “Stoddard came to Glens Falls in 1864, set up for himself as sign and ornamental painter and ended by painting landscapes and portraits. Later he gained the unsolicited title of “professor” as teacher of art in the old Glens Falls Academy. His life dream is art.”
In fact, Stoddard may have taken up photography in order to create studies for paintings. Weidner says, “As Stoddard traveled, he photographed bodies of water, in particular, Lake George.”
To create the images he sought, Stoddard sometimes combined more than one negative into a single print, said Weidner.
“Water and Light” features fifty images of the lake, representing the length of the lake from the Fort William Henry Hotel to the islands of The Narrows to Rogers Rock. Among the landmarks included: Pearl Point, Black Mountain, French Point, Recluse Island, Sabbath Day Point, and Hulett’s Landing.
Despite having worked with Stoddard’s photographs for roughly two decades, Weidner said, “I’m always discovering something new and seeing things I hadn’t seen before.”
“Over time, one comes to learn more about Stoddard and the collection,” said Weidner, adding, “The more I learn, the more I appreciate Stoddard as an artist and not just as one more early, skillful photographer.”
Reminding people of the significance of Stoddard, who was largely forgotten after his death in 1917 until the 1960s, when Adirondack historian Maitland De Sormo acquired his archives and began publishing articles about his work, is part of the Chapman’s strategic mission.
“Our Stoddard collection is a unique resource. Although other museums possess examples of his work, he means more to us because our region is where he lived and work. His story is one that needs to be told, and we want to do that even more emphatically than we have in the past,” said Weidner.
Water and Light is part of the Chapman’s effort to tell the comprehensive story of Stoddard and his work, said Weidner. The volume can be purchased at the Chapman Museum, which is located at 348 Glen Street, Glens Falls.
Hours are Tuesday – Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm, Sunday, noon to 4 pm. Admission: $5 adults, $4 students and seniors, under 12 free. For more information call (518) 793-2826.
Photo by S.R. Stoddard.
A version of this article first appeared on the Lake George Mirror.