Samuel Chamberlain’s Salem I: Winter

Two notable architectural photographers of the twentieth century turned their lenses on Salem again and again: Frank Cousins (1851-1925) and Samuel Chamberlain (1895-1975). These men represent a continuum for me: Chamberlain picked up where Cousins left off: with a gap of about ten or fifteen years while the former was more focused on the Old World than the New, and on etching rather than photography. It’s a very interesting exercise to consider their views of the same structure side by side: this is one way that I’ve been teaching myself about photography. Chamberlain has much more of a trained eye–having studied both architecture at MIT and etching in France–but both seem as concerned with documentation as illustration to me. I’m impressed with the range of activities and entrepreneurship of both men–although clearly Chamberlain was more worldly, by choice and circumstance. Born in Iowa and raised in Washington State, Chamberlain’s time at MIT was interrupted by World War I and service as an ambulance driver in France, where he became entranced with the buildings around him and “decided he would prefer to record the picturesque rather than design it” according to 1975 obituary in The New York Times. He recorded picturesque architecture in France, England and America with his etchings, prints and photographs in over 40 published books and countless magazine pieces, as well as the first-ever engagement calendars featuring New England scenes.

Chamberlain collage Two perspectives on the Peirce-Nichols House:  Cousins and Chamberlain.

I grew up with Samuel Chamberlain books and when I moved to Salem I bought more: his vista included all of New England (and beyond) but as he lived in nearby Marblehead, he had ample opportunity to photograph Salem over a 30+ year period from the 1930s through the 1960s. Like Cousins before him, Chamberlain resolutely avoided all the “dull” parts of the city (anything industrial or utilitarian, Victorian or 20th century), and stuck to the historic districts for the most part, where he photographed both interiors and exteriors. I can’t get enough of the first of his three Salem-specific titles, Historic Salem in Four Seasons: A Camera Impression (1938), Salem Interiors: Two Centuries of New England Taste and Decoration (1950), and A Stroll through Historic Salem (1969) because of its rich rotogravure reproductions, which render pre-war Salem in very rich hues. I’m going to offer up some seasonal highlights of Samuel Chamberlain’s Salem this year, starting with winter, which he believed was the time of “Salem’s most beautiful moments…when few visitors see it”.

Chamberlain 1

Chamberlain 7

Chamberlain 8

Chamberlain 9

Chamberlain 11

Chamberlain 10

Chamberlain Federal

Chamberlain 5

Chamberlain 3

Chamberlain 4Essex Street, Church Street, the rear of the Andrew Safford House, the Retire Becket House, the Derby House, Federal and Chestnut Streets from Samuel Chamberlain’s Historic Salem in Four Seasons (1938). Both Chamberlain and Cousins deposited materials in the Phillips Library, which has been removed from Salem by the Peabody Essex Museum. 


6 responses to “Samuel Chamberlain’s Salem I: Winter

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