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  • Laying Claim to the Land(scape):Chansonetta Stanley Emmons (1858–1937)
  • Shawn Michelle Smith

In 1979, when the Franklin Library republished Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories in its collection of the 100 Greatest Masterpieces of American Literature, it illustrated the leather-bound limited edition with images made by a relatively unknown photographer, Chansonetta Stanley Emmons. Like Jewett, Emmons was a daughter of Maine, and like her slightly elder compatriot she found creative inspiration in the simple life of Maine's rural inhabitants.1

Emmons began her photographic practice in 1897, just one year after Jewett first published The Country of the Pointed Firs, and she was fascinated by many of the same antiquated customs and extraordinary people that captured Jewett's imagination. Her images seem a natural choice to illustrate the special edition of Jewett's most celebrated work. In this essay, however, I will suggest that Emmons's photographs are more than just illustrations and that they warrant the kind of close reading typical of literary scholarship. Just as literary texts do, photographs create scenes, even as they document them. A careful reading of the discourses they engage, as well as of their formal elements, reveals the intricate ways photographs propose cultural visions. A photograph represents a series of choices—of subject, framing, emphasis, inclusion, and exclusion—informed by cultural priorities and individual proclivities. By manifesting and reproducing those choices, photographs make some views literally more visible than others. In other words, images, like novels, short stories, and poems, engage in and help to shape cultural ideas, beliefs, and assumptions. Bringing the tools of literary scholarship to bear on Emmons's photographs, attending to their formal and thematic investments, this essay shows how Emmons, [End Page 346] like Jewett, composed a specific vision of rural life in Maine, a personal vision imbued with broad cultural and political implications.

Chansonetta Stanley Emmons was not alone as a woman photographer at the turn of the century.2 As Laura Wexler has noted, "Throughout the 1890s, the periodical press carried many articles that praised photography as a vocation for women" (210), including the invitation of Frances Benjamin Johnston, who urged readers of the Ladies' Home Journal to discover just "what a woman [could] do with a camera" (6). Photography was relatively inexpensive, and training in the practice was still rather casual. People learned photography largely through pamphlets, professional journals, brief apprenticeships, and trial and error. In other words, photography as an art form or a trade was available to many people of modest means and limited time. Emmons began working as a photographer at the relatively late age of thirty-nine, after studying painting and then teaching drawing and sketching, first in schools in rural Maine and later in Boston. In 1909, Emmons produced her own book, a collection of photographs titled The Old Table Chair. She also published photographs in Country Life (January 1927) and American Forests and Forest Life (October 1928), the latter in an article written by her daughter, Dorothy. In the mid-1920s, she began to make glass lantern slides of what she considered her best and most interesting photographs, and she hand-colored them brightly and meticulously. Lantern slide shows were common in Northeastern communities in the early twentieth century, and Emmons likely would have presented hers in the churches and community auditoriums in and around Boston, as well as in the small towns she favored. The slide shows included one on rural New England and one on the Carolinas. Because Chansonetta was entirely deaf by this point in her life, Dorothy gave the lectures and answered questions while Chansonetta worked the lantern slide projector. More recently, Emmons's work has been included in several group shows on women in Maine art, women in the history of photography, the history of New England, and the history of African Americans in South Carolina.

Throughout her forty-year career, from 1897 to 1937, Emmons made hundreds and hundreds of striking photographs of rural life in Maine and greater New England.3 The images display her technical mastery of the medium and keen eye for balanced compositions, and they suggest her knowledge...


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