BRATTLEBORO—An old man stands on top of a high haystack looking down at the camera. His chest-length silver beard curls around his mouth, and his lips curve up. Behind him a Vermont hillside, manicured by agriculture, stretches to the horizon.
A young woman watches the camera through wire-rimmed glasses, her chin tilted slightly and her long hair piled on top of her head. Her light summer dress shines against the darkness of her telephone operator’s room. A 1911 directory hangs by her knee.
Porter C. Thayer, like many town photographers of his time, captured images of a Windham County few remember now. But his photographs documented people, towns and landscapes from 1906 to 1930, helping ensure they are never completely forgotten.
The public will soon have access to 1,250 Thayer images online through collaboration between Brooks Memorial Library and the University of Vermont’s Center for Digital Initiatives (CDI).
Brooks currently houses the Porter Thayer Collection, offering the public access to the images only on microfilm. The Brooks staff intends to open the Thayer photographs to a wider audience by adding them to the CDI’s digital library.
Thayer traveled throughout Windham Country as an itinerant photographer documenting Vermont life in the early 20th century, said Jess Weitz, technical services assistant at Brooks.
According to Weitz, “town photographers” of that era documented local events. Thayer maintained a portrait studio, but also took great care to photograph daily life.
Thayer used a 5x7 view camera with glass plate negatives. Glass plate negatives can be hard to find, said Weitz, because most photographers destroyed the plates once they were finished.
Weitz said Thayer’s use of glass plate negatives is the reason his photos contain sharp details and value range. Glass plates, as a rule, stored more information and detail than other forms of photographic negatives. With view cameras like the one Thayer used, the negative is the same size as the print, said Weitz.
Thayer also earned money through the production and sale of his postcards, said Weitz.
According to documents accompanying an exhibit of his work, Thayer learned his trade of “taking likenesses” from his wife Edith Webster, “who had a photographic studio in the Marshall Martin house in Townshend.”
The couple worked from a studio in Williamsville “where they had two view cameras, a 5x7 and 6½ x 8½, a darkroom closet and a railroad lantern for a safelight,” wrote Peter Mauss, photographic technician for “Images From Our Past,” a project of the Arts Council of Windham County, Brooks Memorial Library and the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.
Thayer brought sensitivity and technical expertise to his photography and demonstrated a “feeling of personal drive” beyond his assignments as an itinerant photographer, said Weitz.
She described Thayer’s “photographic eye” as offering a “clarity” to the way he saw life in Windham County. A prolific photographer of people and landscapes, Thayer preferred photographing working Vermonters like loggers, blacksmiths or meat delivery drivers, to documenting the lives of their upper-class neighbors.
Weitz said photographs for most of Thayer’s subjects were still “such a novelty.”
She described the era as the beginning of documenting the world through photographs and the “beginning of looking at the world around you.”
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