View Full Version : Photo Exhibit: Vanished New Jersey

November 1st, 2005, 08:31 AM
Nothing New About This New Jersey

By RONALD SMOTHERS (http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=bylL&v1=RONALD SMOTHERS&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=RONALD SMOTHERS&inline=nyt-per)
New York Times
November 1, 2005


NEWARK, Oct. 26 - Harry C. Dorer roamed New Jersey for four decades with his boxy Speed Graphic camera, capturing for a weekly newspaper the sepia-toned images of what is now a vanished New Jersey.

There are the farms of the southern, central and western parts of the state, which gave it its Garden State nickname before the 1950's, when the ribbon of concrete called the New Jersey Turnpike transformed the state in most minds. There are the coastal dunes spiked with spindly grasses rather than condominiums. And there are the grand steam locomotives of the private rail lines that once crisscrossed the state.

Harry C. Dorer

An undated winter scene in the grasslands, illustrating Harry C. Dorer's preference
for skies with well-defined clouds.

"It is said, jokingly, that he knew the name of every cow in Sussex County," said Charles Cummings, head of the New Jersey Collection of the Newark Public Library. "He was so devoted to New Jersey that when his editors sent him out of state to, say, the Poconos to take pictures, the photos mysteriously never turned out well enough to publish."

Harry C. Dorer

An undated self-portrait
of the photographer.

Starting Nov. 1, the library will mount an exhibit of Mr. Dorer's work culled from a cataloged collection of 36,000 prints donated to its archives by his family when the photographer died in 1962. They include a group of 150 prints of famous people living in or passing through the state in those days who had autographed the prints and returned them to Mr. Dorer, at the photographer's request.

Other photographs were drawn from the library's separate collection of the rotogravure sections of The Newark Sunday Call, for which the Mr. Dorer worked all of his professional life.

The photographs span the years 1920 to 1954, when he retired. The newspaper sections were the showcases of the 1920's for the application rotogravure photography to big-time journalism, just as Web sites and blogs are current examples of journalism melding with the digital age. And, as such, the sections democratized journalism and were what Charles Traub, chairman of the Master of Fine Arts program at the School of Visual Arts, called "the local Life Magazines" of a region, telling their stories in pictures.

To Mr. Cummings, the librarian, the rotogravure sections and Mr. Dorer's work in particular are "visual anthropology," making the occasionally gruff, five-foot-eight New Jerseyan the sort of social history photographer that he never claimed to be.

His work is not the noirish crime scene photography of Weegee nor the self-consciously artistic work of a fellow New Jerseyan, Alfred Stieglitz, who is considered one of the foremost masters of photography as art. But it is nevertheless evocative of a time and place. And while the images trigger nostalgia and memory, as most photographs do, there are also many that are much more than the sum of their parts.

There is a photograph of Gov. Charles Edison earnestly working at his desk in 1944. What leaps out are the articles on his desk, including several photographs and a bust of his father, Thomas Alva Edison.

Fascinated with early air travel, Mr. Dorer flew in planes not only to take sweeping aerial photographs but to chronicle the people of the new era, like an earthbound and rumpled air mail pilot at dusk, wearily leaning against a wall with a pile of mail bags at his feet. Another photograph, a large circle of robed and hooded Ku Klux Klansmen taken from a distant hill as they rallied in a New Jersey meadow, conveys a sense of menace and secrecy.

Barbara Yochelson, a historian of photography and a freelance curator of photography exhibits, said that libraries and local historical societies often have such collections, valuing them more as history than as art. But that is changing, she said, as inexpensive digital technology and the Internet have made it easier to duplicate and exhibit pictures, making them accessible to a wider array of people and beginning to blur the line between history and art.

In the last 30 years or so, she added, "vernacular photography" - the kind done by local portrait photographers, journalistic toilers such as Mr. Dorer and drawn from simple family albums - has attracted increasing interest. She said that "serendipity" had always elevated some snapshots to art, but this phenomenon seemed more common.

One example she pointed to was James VanderZee, the Harlem portrait photographer. His work, long archived, combined with the 60's explosion of black culture, helped spawn the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit "Harlem on My Mind." A more recent example is the work of Mike Disfarmer, a portrait photographer from Heber Springs, Ark., whose simple and unglamorous portraits of Ozark hill people now sell for as much as $20,000.

John Cunningham, the author of some 48 books on New Jersey, was assigned as a reporter to work with Harry Dorer in 1947 when The Newark Sunday Call was purchased by The Newark Evening News, a daily paper, to become its Sunday edition, with a magazine section. Mr. Cunningham said he came to realize that Mr. Dorer, a city boy who unfailingly wore a snap-brim fedora and a heavy dark overcoat, knew every road in the state and what stood beyond every turn.

"It was a New Jersey chauvinism, and he was easy to get along with as long as he was in an area that he liked," Mr. Cunningham recalled in an interview.

Although he was born in East Orange, Mr. Dorer loved the country and made a point of buying a bushel of something from a roadside stand for the women back in the newspaper office who handled expense accounts. Asked if Mr. Dorer was ever self-consciously artistic, Mr. Cunningham said:

"He never had a picture printed that didn't have clouds in it. And with lens filters and processing techniques, he made the skies the way he wanted them to be rather than the way God wanted them. It was something that took him beyond the straight news."

Stieglitz had a passion for clouds as well. But by all accounts Mr. Dorer, who photographed everything from the opening of a chicken farm in South Jersey to the arrival of the King of England at the Red Bank train station, had few pretensions about his work. And it is this workmanlike quality that Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Cummings see as telling the state's story.

Mr. Dorer was there to photograph Houdini performing one of his escapes while trussed up and hanging upside down by a rope tied to the roof of a downtown Newark furniture store. Taken from the roof of another building, the scene shows the people below craning their necks, and the unfazed bustle of downtown at the fringes of the picture.

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