Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, northwestern Pennsylvania was predominantly a region of dirt-street towns, each serving a neighboring farm popula­tion. As such, these communities were home to blacksmiths, harness makers. and their like – practical mechanics whose utilitarian skills were very much a pan of the agricultural landscape. And among these champions of the useful crafts, there was invariably a country photographer or two, who, like their peers, were advocates of practicality and utility. They were artisans whose work evokes the antiquity of the past, capturing the look of a time and place and people mythically distant from the realities of our daily lives.

Lawrence Vincent Kupper was one or these dirt-street town photographers who plied his trade in Edinboro from 1890 into the 1940s. He was a citizen of a world shedding its agrarian heritage. opting for an industrial present, for urban (or at least suburban) perspectives. but he seemed indifferent to the thrust of the times. And though his most productive period coincided with the rise of modern photography, his profes­sional life and work are a disclaimer of Edward Steichen’s point chat the modern artist is in step with “the specific scien­tific aspects or research, invention and discovery of his world.” However, Kupper interests us precisely because he is so lacking in modernity, because his photographs arc so redo­lent with provincial America’s conceptions of beauty and taste, of what constitutes art.

As to the details of his personal history, they can be sum­marized with dispatch. L. V. Kupper was born in Germer­sheimer, Germany, on October 31, 1864 (some sources indi­cate ’66), and before immigrating to America in the late 1870s or early 80s, he was awarded a diploma from a teacher’s semi­nary. As well, it appears that Kupper must have acquired a rudimentary knowledge or photography, for after passing through the Immigrant Station at Castle Garden, he found work with a photographic supply house in New York City – either the Scoville Manufacturing Co. or E. & T.H. Anthony. As a member of the sales department, he called upon the photographic trade, a situation that must have created a desire to see the American hinterlands. When next heard from, he had become an itinerant teacher of the Graham system of shorthand together with other commercial subjects.

The search for students brought Kupper in 1889 10 Edin­boro, a community or eleven hundred residents twenty miles south of Erie. Henry L. Van Dyke, one of at least two photog­raphers plying their crafts in the community, was among his pupils. Apparently, he and Kupper struck up a friendship, and the latter must have seen first hand the “latest machinery and appliances” the photographer’s gallery boasted. It seems likely, too, that Van Dyke revealed something of his craft to his stenography teacher, for on one of his absences from town, the local paper announced that Professor Kupper could be found in charge of the gallery. So pleased was the pupil with his instructor that he wrote a letter of recommendation for Kupper when that young man contemplated moving from Edinboro in the spring of 1890.

However, Kupper did not leave town. With or without Van Dyke’s blessing, he took over A.R. Fowler’s photographic gallery. This individual, who had moved his place or business to Meadville, sold to Kupper in July 1890 tools of the trade that the fledgling photographer may have been using gratis to this point. The bill of sale. which inexplicably survives, in­cludes the following: 1 camera, 1 camera stand, 1 lens, 1 shutter, 2 posing chairs, 4 backgrounds and 1 headrest. The price agreed upon for these and a miscellany or other items, including a rustic seat, was $110 cash, surely a modest invest­ment for Edinboro’s newest photographer, who did not begin advertising his Sunshine Gallery in the Edinboro Independent until January 7, 1891.

Competition from Kupper may have led Van Dyke in Oc­tober 1890 to cease making “cheap” pictures in favor of only “the best and highest finished work,” but relations between the two professionals continued cordial. Their friendship is documented by a news item indicating that they went together to a photographer’s convention in Buffalo, New York, in July 1891. Then, in November 1895, the Independent announced that Henry Van Dyke was leaving Edinboro for Washington County to enter the oil business. Kupper not only remained in the field but took over his mentor’s gallery to include all the negatives Van Dyke had amassed. He remained in his second­-floor studio until it was destroyed by fire in 1905. Thereafter, he settled into a small building just south of his Meadville St. home, maintaining himself in these quarters into the second half of the twentieth century.

On his death in 1957, the gallery’s contents were still in­tact, including literally thousands of glass and flexible film negatives. Regrettably, only a handful were saved, but those that were make possible a number of generalizations about Kupper and the 16, 700 small-town photographers identified in the 1910 census. To begin, the majority were artisans with little or no opportunity for the professional study of their chosen craft. What they saw of the world’s art was most likely contained in stray magazines, and those that came their way were not often the most relevant in light of the dirt-street towner’s given situation. These individuals were first and foremost portrait photographers whose subjects were neither the rich nor the poor, the powerful nor the powerless. Those who sat for them were neighbors: men and women and chil­dren whose lives were lived in anonymity, whose births and deaths were noted in the pages of the local papers only.

It was a diet of sameness that frequently turned the photog­rapher into a mere mechanic, conceiving of his work as largely routine. If he had a concern, it was not with making an artistic statement but with good craftsmanship, a predisposition his sitters could understand and applaud. Adhering to their ex­pectations, the country practitioner, seeking the “good likeness,” was satisfied if his work was clear and distinct and full of definition: the features clearly rendered, the dress dis­tinctly recorded. Unfortunately, what he achieved more often than not were essentially harsh and uniformly lighted, wooden images. Today’s collector may laud such products for what is sometimes called their “old-fashioned charm,” but from an aesthetic perspective these likenesses have little to rec­ommend them – portraits that are unsuggestive, that concen­trate on the merely obvious.

Kupper, like his peers, benefited from his sitters’ acute sense of their own mortality, from their desire to have recorded the bench marks of family life – birth and death, mar­riage and children. However, his bread-and-butter work gives little evidence that he was, as his advertising proclaimed, an “artist in photography.” Rather he could and did produce his share or cheap, sharp portraits, best characterized as “pain­ful.” Exceptions include his representations or Edinboro’s young womanhood. Their likenesses possess a genuine, if quaint, charm, and validate images of purity and innocence that abound in the genteel poetry of the day as well as on the popular stage. Otherwise, what survives of Kupper’s efforts in this genre has little to distinguish it from the portraits of a Fowler or a Van Dyke, who were artisans committed by their sitters to document the commonplaceness of American life.

The country photographer’s work, if motivated by a mun­dane imperative, was also informed by a social purpose. For Kupper, like his neighbors, was imbued with a marked sense of place. He felt his community no less than his person was important and, being a photographer, he took pictures of his surroundings that were precisely detailed and informational. He was, then, a documentary photographer of sorts. Unfor­tunately, his Edinboro views lack the drama and excitement that characterize the work of John Mather, his oil region neighbor who chronicled the rise of oil – the premier industry of the modern age. But neither was he a George Bretz. Read­ers may have seen a sampling of this Pottsville photographer’s mining photographs that attracted statewide attention in their day, pioneering examples of what documentary photography was about.

Kupper’s photographs, while constituting a remarkable pic­torial memory, their myriad de1ails in sharp focus, do not exist to call attention to a desperate human situation such as existed in the mines of eastern Pennsylvania. Rather, they evi­dence little or no intent to influence human behavior or to al­ter the status quo. His camera’s lens was a means to celebrate the rural life style, to visualize that sense of hope and promise that was so indigenous to Americans in their Age of Inno­cence. Evidently, he was pleased with what he produced in this genre, publicly displaying town views in the windows of his gallery. However, these documentary photographs were not exemplars of the work or which he was proudest.

If he felt himself worthy of the label “artist in photog­raphy,” it was because of his landscape photographs. To be sure, he was not alone among country photographers in gelling out of doors with his camera to record images from nature, but he was not content simply to record a given view after having first chosen a suitable angle, distance and per­haps time of day. Kupper, who had longed to become a painter as a youth in Germany, approached outdoor photog­raphy with a painter’s sensitivity. A conviction that he was producing an led him to treat landscape photography with all the care he associated with serious art. More than that, his stance allied him with pictorialism and the pictorialists.

The latter, in Kupper’s day, were out to prove undeniably that photography was art, and this they fell could most ex­peditiously be accomplished by bringing photography as close to painting as possible. What study, reading and viewing he had done at exhibitions, like 1hat held in Buffalo in 1891, did not prompt him into modernity. Rather, the authorities he ac­cepted urged him to produce pictures 1hat were beautiful, photographs that captured the picturesque, that were, in a word, “pictorial.” And, in landscape photographs, Kupper found his escape from the pedestrian, utilitarian portrait sit­tings that filled so many of his waking hours.

His landscape photographs did not obligate him to record facts; they beckoned him to express the beauty he had long as­sociated with landscape paintings. But because he had been so long associated with portrait photography and with a docu­mentary photography that involved the human comedy, it is rare to find an outdoor scene that does not include a man, or men. Certainly his views of the late Victorian farm do, but then so do photographs of his favorite subject: Edinboro Lake, known in his day as Conneauttee Lake. The former re­veal Kupper’s commitment to romantic realism, emphasizing not only a pride in place but a dedication to labor and effort as avenues to success. Photographs that depict the yeoman farmer behind the plow or pitching hay onto a wagon are at once anecdotal genre and visual hymns to the rural scene, vali­dating a belief that work is at the heart of the nation’s life and that the heart of life is to be found in the country.

Kupper’s farm scenes, the most pleasing of which give evi­dence of being carefully posed, are obviously indebted to the photographer’s painterly sensibility. And if there is an evident artistic influence at work, it would appear to be the genre sub­jects of Currier and Ives, which are, like Kupper’s work, es­sentially gentle glimpses devoid, as the actuality was not, of hard realities and raw edges. No doubt, he was influenced as well by the schoolroom poets of the day together with the ver­sifiers found in local papers who made much of tillers of the soil finding a pride and purpose in their calling. Both poet and photographer create scenes in which effort, work and will pre­dominate.

On November 4, 1891, the “Brief Mention” column of the Edinboro Independent makes reference to a very handsome collection of outdoor views and groups in the window of the gallery on Meadville Street. Though specific subjects are not mentioned, they very likely included farm scenes together with examples of his “lake” photographs. Some years later. on December 8, 1898, an ad in the Independent indicates that Kupper was giving away a “sunset scene” with each dozen portraits ordered. Just what these premiums were is made clear in another ad on December 22 which featured “Sunset on Edinboro Lake” and “The Swimming Hole.” Neither has survived and were likely destroyed in the fire of 1905. Miss­ing, too, are photographs reproduced in issues for 1898 of Wilson’s Photographic Guide: “A Moonlight Sail,” “Going Ashore” and “Drifting.”

The last, “Drifting,” was one of forty “lake” photographs Kupper copyrighted, not one of which can be located by the Certification and Documents section of the Copyright Office. “Drifting” illustrates an article titled “Pictorial Photog­raphy.” whose author calls the photograph at once a “faith­ful rendering” and “pictorial” – something of a contradic­tion. Further, it is “a good example of what might be ren­dered as a very commonplace subject, but which has been treated with a view solely to making a picture.” The latter point is, of course, what needs to be kept in mind when view­ing Kupper’s lake subjects. They possess, as another writer in the same publication affirms, “considerable pictorial qual­ity” as well as “sentiment.” In other words, they are not to be taken as literal transcriptions of observed reality.

Kupper was a “pictorialist” in the pursuit of beauty, the beauty of nature. His goal was not to capture its facts but to express the emotions aroused in him by these very same facts. The result was the poetic landscape – nature existing not to re­veal herself but to interpret the artist’s self. And, as a consequence, it is not surprising to find that Kupper’s lake photo­graphs are all atmosphere, all mystery, all nostalgia. Here is reverie, introspection, a nature that has nothing primitive or elemental in it, a nature that is ever calm, never gripped by tempest. It is a world chat is at once uncomplicated and unreal with all its beauty of sentiment, its decorative suggestiveness. its luminosity and poetic charm.

A story that old-timers yet recall locally concerns a commis­sion that L. V. received from the Literary Digesl for a series of his lake photographs. According to a one-time acquaintance, Kupper responded to the offer with the following exclama­tion: “A work of mine on the cover of a Set magazine to be trampled underfoot by the common herd. Never!” Evidently, he took himself and his landscape photographs quite serious­ly, and he would have concurred with Sadakichi Hartmann, who admonished photographers to rely on their eye, their good taste and their knowledge of composition. Further, Hartmann spoke of the need to consider “every fluctuation of color, light and shade,” of the need to study “tones, and values and space division.” A final caution of Hartmann’s would surely have pleased Kupper: ” … patiently wait until the scene or object of your pictorial vision reveals itself in its supremest moment of beauty.”

Unfortunately, photographs that are at once delicate and refined, and in which the “pictorial” element comes to the fore as personal statement are not to the taste or our day. Yet these very photographs deserve a viewing and not merely because they are balanced compositions, decoratively sugges­tive in ways that remind us of the affinities Kupper and his peers assumed between painting and photography. In interest­ing and potentially significant ways, the lake photographs contain intimations of artists whose work he had never had the opportunity to observe at first hand. By way of example, several of his lake scenes in which no human figures are present call to mind the silhouette landscapes of the painter Albert Blakelock (1847-1919). Those that incorporate human figures,. especially the region’s hunters and fishermen, echo the Adirondack views or another artist of the outdoors, Win­slow Homer (1836-1910).

Too much can be read into or made of these correspond­ences, for first and foremost Kupper was a dirt-street town photographer, who was able to live in relative comfort be­cause his studio work pleased his neighbors. And if he became a habit with them, it was because his studio portraits together with his town and rural views tallied their own sense of place, their own convictions of the countryman and his way of life. This is not to suggest their indifference to his lake photographs, for they had grown up on the schoolroom poets – Bryant, Whittier, et al., and upon a local verse that ex­tolled “green forest glades” as well as “the brown furrowed earth.”

His patrons, too. were attuned to the polite standards or the day. They were ready to applaud the soulful and the poetic, whether in the pages of genteel anthologies or in the window of the Sunbeam Gallery. Lawrence Vincent Kupper, its pro­prietor, was a photographer grounded in the prevailing tradi­tions of “polite” taste that were eroding even as he went about his work. Put another way, he was a photographer not for our time but for his own – at once an indication of the strength and the limitations of an individual who aspired to be known as an “artist in photography.”

 

John L. Marsh is a professor of English at Edinboro Univer­sity of Pennsylvania and has been published previously in Pennsylvania History, Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine and Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biog­raphy.

 

Karl E. Nordberg, an associate professor of educa­tional communications at Edinboro Univer­sity of Pennsylvania, is responsible for the photography. Dr. Marsh and Mr. Nordberg have col­laborated in the past on research involving the late Victorian farm and the architecture of country churches.