There seems to be no doubt about it. Seneca Ray Stoddard, along with being a pretty darn good photographer, was quite a likable guy.
“He had to be,” said Craig Williams, curator of history at the New York State Museum. “He’s always taking pictures of groups of people, and he must have had this wonderful ability to make people feel welcome and comfortable. That clearly comes through when you look at his photographs.”
Many of the images Stoddard took while photographing the Adirondacks during his lifetime (1844-1917) are currently on display in an exhibit called “Seneca Ray Stoddard: Capturing the Adirondacks,” at the state museum’s Crossroads Gallery through Feb. 24, 2013.
A Glens Falls resident most of his life, Stoddard was a freelance photographer whose pictures of life in the Adirondack mountains as well as his guidebooks and maps helped popularize the region during the post-Civil War era.
“There was no spontaneous photography back then, and yet Stoddard would produce these wonderfully composed pictures with hundreds of people in them,” said Williams.
‘Seneca Ray Stoddard: Capturing the Adirondacks’
WHERE: Crossroads Gallery, New York State Museum, Empire State Plaza, Albany
WHEN: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, through Feb. 24
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 474-5877, www.nysm.nysed.gov
“He must have had a very upbeat personality to accomplish all that. If you’re an old curmudgeon it’s not going to work. He must have been friendly and humorous, and you can also see some of that in some of the tongue-in-cheek remarks he has in his writings.”
There are 101 photographic images on display, many of them from the state museum’s collection as well as others on loan from the Chapman Historical Museum in Glens Falls, which is also presenting its own Stoddard exhibit through Sept. 2 at its 348 Glen St. home.
Carrie Bernardi, an exhibit planner at the state museum, was in charge of getting the exhibit ready for public display and, like Williams, she says Stoddard’s personality comes through loud and clear when you look at his photos.
“He took pictures of loggers inside a rustic camp, he took pictures of people sitting on these stately porches of grand hotels, and what’s so interesting to me is how he got all these people to sit for him,” said Bernardi, a Norwich native who has been at the museum for 13 years.
“Here comes this guy walking out of the woods with all this camera equipment, and he gets people to work with him and participate. It’s not like today with a digital camera. He must have just had this way about him, and you can tell from his photos that he loved his work.”
Named for uncle
Stoddard was born in Wilton and named after an uncle whose parents had named him Seneca, in honor of the Roman philosopher. Before getting into photography, Stoddard was a sign painter who also had an artistic side. He was hired by the railroad to paint decorative scenes on the interior of passenger cars, and then at age 20 he moved to photography, which was then a relatively new field. Within 10 years, he had published a series of guidebooks, his most famous, “The Adirondacks: Illustrated,” which came out in 1873.
By 1892, he was a fairly well-known figure throughout upstate New York, and during that year he made an illustrated presentation to the state Legislature that helped secure support for the creation of the Adirondack Park. While Albany attorney and author Verplanck Colvin deservedly gets much of the credit for the park, Stoddard should also not be forgotten for his contributions.
“Colvin gets the top award for creating the park, but Stoddard gave this classic presentation before the state Legislature that is legendary,” said Williams.
“He had this passion for the Adirondacks, and he brought that passion to his work. He wanted to share his love for the mountains with other people, so he promoted the Adirondacks, but maybe a better way to put it would be to say it was like missionary work to him.”
In 1869, Stoddard married Helen A. Potter, who played the role of silent partner in the family business.
“His wife was very important to the whole process,” said Williams. “The family home was like a production center, so it was very much a team effort, and she doesn’t get the credit she ought to.”
Still, Stoddard did most of the hard legwork, which in those days was significant.
“He was out there carrying his darkroom into the Adirondack wilderness,” said Bernardi. “You had to prepare a wet plate before you took the photograph, and then you had to place it there immediately after you took the picture to capture the image. It’s amazing what he did.”
The images on display are mostly 4-by-7-inch albumen prints, the first commercially successful process of putting images on paper created in the early 1850s.
“They’re small and very fragile,” said Bernardi. “We could have enlarged them and printed them bigger, but in a certain way, because they’re small, they invite you to step up close and look very closely at them. They offer a very personal experience.”
While Stoddard is remembered for his Adirondack collection, he did at times travel outside upstate New York.
“Some of the photographs I liked the most were his shots of the Statue of Liberty, and they’re part of the exhibit.” said Bernardi. “He took exterior and interior photographs of people touring the statue in a very nontraditional way, and we also have some images he took of Fort Ticonderoga in ruins. If you’ve seen the fort today you’ll find these very interesting. He had this way of really capturing the moment.”
In the decades following his death, Stoddard and his work faded from the public consciousness. That began to change thanks to the efforts of Maitland DeSormo, a Canton native and longtime Saranac Lake resident who wrote a biography of Stoddard in the 1960s.
Rescuing the material
An English professor and historian, DeSormo rescued much of Stoddard’s material and saw that most of it went into the archives of the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake and the Chapman Museum. In 1972, the state museum also added 500 of Stoddard’s historic images to its collection, paying DeSormo approximately just $1 per print.
“We’ve used Stoddard’s images before and have blown them up for other exhibits, but we had never had a display dedicated solely to him,” said Williams.
“It was easy for me to go through his pictures, but Carrie and our other exhibit planners did a great job of designing the display and giving it a very welcoming spirit. They’re the ones who make it something that the public is going to want to come in and see.”
“We start out by talking to our content provider, and then have a brainstorming session to narrow things down to what we want to use,” said Bernardi.
“Then, what I find helpful in creating a cohesive exhibit is to establish our goals and themes. The images are great, and we’ve organized them by theme, but we also want people to get a little idea about the man himself. He had a very unique way, an artist’s eye, about how he looked at the environment and the people within that environment.”