The Vision of David H. Mellinger

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

To those sated with visual images – the thousands of televi­sion commercials, magazine illustrations and billboard drawings – the nov­elty which once surrounded photographs is difficult to appreciate today. During the prosperous decades following the Civil War, early photogra­phy was limited to the work of trained professionals, those dauntless photographers, tethered to their leather-cased boxes, who made formal, studio portraits, traveled the countryside engaging in sur­vey work, or who, in the em­ploy of commercial view companies, captured families posed stiffly in their starched finery before their farmsteads and homesteads.

By the waning years of the nineteenth century, rapidly evolving technology – the hand-held and folding cam­eras, the astigmat lenses and the dry plate method­ – expanded the availability of photography and attracted avid amateurs. Instead of professional photographers offering a touted “once-in-a­-lifetime” likeness, novices began to record everyday events and activities in the lives of their families and friends. Amateurs began pho­tographing for their own amusement and enjoyment, not merely to capture subjects at their studio best. Photo­graphs eventually became commonplace as the ubiqui­tous snapshot was developed.

Accurately discerning the development of amateur pho­tography is, at best, difficult. Images of families and friends were treasured and kept at home, not exhibited or sold. With each passing generation, the meanings and significance ascribed to these early pictures sadly diminished and many amateur works were simply discarded. Lost are those naive glimpses of the everyday life of generations of both rural and cosmopolitan Pennsylvanians. But, fortunately, the recent discovery of the work of one south-central Pennsylvanian, David H. Mellinger of Lancas­ter County, provides a rare opportunity to examine the vision of an accomplished amateur.

The Mellinger photographs surfaced in October 1985 at an auction conducted in Creswell, a quaint Lancaster County village in which the photogra­pher lived and died. His daughter discovered a cache of nearly two hundred glass place negatives, dating between 1882 and 1910, when she sold the nanbling Victorian era mansion, although she was aware that her father had pursued photography as a hobby, she never, to the best of her memory, had seen the antique images.

According to titles identify­ing most of the pictures, Mel­linger’s subjects were his relatives and neighbors, their houses and farms,and Creswell’s familiar institutions, including the school, store, blacksmith shop and churches. Mellinger trailed his subjects through the ravines of the nearby River Hills to the banks of the scenic Susquehanna River, along which he photographed them hiking, boating and lumbering. He even captured for posterity – and historians – the construction of the railroad which followed the river’s edge. Mellinger took few formal portraits. Instead, he photographed his subjects in natural, casual settings. They nonchalantly appeared on porches, in the yard and flanking the church and store. Mostly, Mellinger stayed close to home to photo­graph; with few exceptions, his photographs depict scenes found within five miles of Creswell.

David H. Mellinger’s work is technically sound and artis­tically interesting. A skilled and dedicated amateur, he took pains to record a scene in a particular way. He often shot views more than once, bracket­ing exposures or changing composition slightly to obtain a more aesthetically pleasing picture. He had a good eye for an alluring photograph. But, more often than not, his pic­tures suggest that he photo­graphed in a relatively spontaneous and unstructured way. Some depict individuals sitting leisurely together, while others show people who seem to have momentarily inter­rupted their work, as if beck­oned by the photographer. A few subjects seem to jest be­fore the camera: boys lurk behind trees, a bare-chested boxer postures, a dog stands on the village blacksmith’s roof. In a particularly touching photograph, two women, apparently deep in mourning, are caught in a candid expres­sion of mutual consolation.

The relative lack of formality in Mellinger’s subjects is especially noteworthy in light of the technical limitations with which the photographer worked. His equipment was bulky and cumbersome, not easily allowing him to capture a decisive moment in an unob­trusive fashion. He shot at one-twentieth of a second, lengthy exposure time by present standards. Regardless of how natural the poses might appear to be, his sub­jects had to consciously hold a pose for these photos, and this spirit of spontaneity testi­fies to Mellinger’s skill in put­ting his subjects at ease.

The value of Mellinger’s photographs is enhanced by their generally good condition and the relative ease with which the individuals and locations can be identified. He took care to preserve his work, storing the glass plates in protective sleeves; even after decades in storage, most of the plates remain in excellent condition. Mellinger photo­graphed Creswell and its envi­rons, the community where he lived and died. A small, iso­lated and quiet village, Creswell has changed little since Mellinger photographed it. Many of the descendants of its nineteenth century inhabit­ants still live there and, with little difficulty, many can rec­ognize parents or grandpar­ents seated on a familiar porch or identify a popular scenic river view.

Recollections of Mellinger’s daughter and others whose relatives appear in these pho­tos enable the identification of his subjects, but also augment an appreciation for the signifi­cance of the images he con­sciously chose to record. For example, a controversy within Creswell’s church led to a bitter split. Discontented church members eventually established a new church and the original congregation sharply declined. 1n three disparate images, Mellinger captured aspects of the devel­opment and ultimate resolu­tion of this schism. The photographs seen in the con­text of such informed interpre­tation provide rare glimpses of small town soda! history usu­ally lost in time.

It is impossible to study Mellinger’s photographs with­out pondering what they might have meant to him. Did he want to record a particular image of the village of Creswell? Was he an enthusi­astic resident , trying to show the little community’s strengths in his portrayal of its people, its institutions and its daily activities? Did he envi­sion a specific audience for his photographs, or did he record images for onJy his satisfaction and pleasure? Without his recollections to draw on, spec­ulation and conjecture are the only options.

Without knowing Mel­linger’s specific intentions as a photographer, it is under­standable that photography seriously engaged him for thirty years. As a country gentleman of considerable means, he could easily afford to embark on an expensive hobby such as photography. According to the 1899 Atlas of Lancaster County, ten parcels of land in and near Creswell bore his name. At the age of twenty-eight, he designed and built a spacious brick mansion during the financial crisis of 1893. He employed many on his farms. His social and eco­nomic position at the center of his community was well-established and secure. A member of one of the county’s oldest families, he was de­scribed at the turn of the cen­tury as “one of the most enterprising farmers of manor township.” He was the grand­son of a prosperous farmer and doctor and oversaw the family’s diverse business af­fairs. He was educated at the Millersville State Normal School. Photography was clearly within his reach.

Mellinger’s personal traits suited him well for photo­graphic pursuits. Above all, he loved innovations. Three­-quarters of a century later, he is still remembered for install­ing a central vacuum cleaning system in his house in 1910, as well as for being the first resi­dent of Manor Township to own a car. His interest in pho­tography began when it was first available to the amateur but waned by 1910 as its nov­elty had subsided.

Photography, as Mellinger practiced it, was an endeavor requiring the dedication of a true craftsman. His financial resources enabled him to obtain the best equipment and to spend time mastering the art. Mellinger was renowned as a skillful woodworker who owned the best woodworking tools available. Hobbies, such as woodworking and photog­raphy, offered him opportunities to excel in activities which, although not financially remu­nerative, seemed akin to work in terms of the demands they made upon the time and skills of a dedicated practitioner. Photography allowed Mel­linger to maintain his status as a gentleman by eschewing gainful employment, while avoiding the appearance of idleness and indolence.

Photography enabled Mel­linger to manifest his power over his community. In his life, he was the architect and builder of his house, the over­seer of his farms, the refiner of his family’s character, the arbiter of taste and the master of his woodshop. As photog­rapher, he summoned his subjects, composed the scenes, stopped the action, and preserved the views he chose of Creswell and its peo­ple. Through photography, he possessed the power of both creator and preserver. Through his works, his creations – the visual records of a life long gone by – survive for historians to study and ponder.

 

For Further Reading

Atlas Surveys of the County of Lancaster, State of Pennsylva­nia. Boston and Philadelphia: Graves and Steinbarger, 1899.

Hales, Peter B. Silver Cities: The Photography of American Urbanization, 1839-1915. Phila­delphia: Temple University Press, 1984.

Meginnes, John F. Biographical Annals of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Chicago: J. H. Beers & Co., 1903.

Newhall, Beaumont. The His­tory of Photography. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1982.

Taft, Robert. Photography and the American Scene: A Social History 1839-1889. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

The Snapshot. New York: Ape­rture, Inc., 1974.

 

Scott E. Kriner is director of photography for Godfrey Adver­tising, Lancaster. He attended Millersville University of Pennsylvania where he studied art and social history. He served as uni­versity photographer at Millers­ville for nine years. He recently printed and curated an exhibition of eighty-six photographs from the David H. Mellinger collection at the institution’s Sykes Gallery.

 

Mary H. Glazier received her Ph.D. in sociology from the Uni­versity of Pennsylvania and is the community education specialist for the Lancaster County Office of Mental Health/Mental Retardation’s-Drug and Alcohol Programs. A resident of the Creswell area, she is also an ama­teur photographer.