Gary Monroe 2017-09-02 02:26:42
The Ever-enigmatic, even slippery, E.G. Barnhill Biting off more than one can comfortably chew is a prerequisite for achieving anything worth doing. The toil imbued with researching, writing and thinking is an unimaginable a priori. We writers tend to forget this in the heat of the moment. I thought that I should write about the process to reveal what readers never know: as easy as better writing reads, it is inversely difficult to achieve. While adding the necessary verity that writing about art, history and culture requires, accuracy and insight must blend. This takes unabashed honesty while the struggling writer has no life for long stretches. There is nowhere to run and hide. Writers have to work intensely to eliminate, or at least contextualize, ambiguities. Otherwise they settle for mediocrity. The book opens with these three paragraphs: Just after the turn of the twentieth century, when Henry Flagler’s railroad pushed Florida’s frontier below his St. Augustine home base and when Henry Plant’s railroads and steamships expanded Florida from his Tampa headquarters, two photographers found their own individual ways to this burgeoning state. These men eventually would impact the settlement of Florida from the early to mid 1900s through the art they each embraced--photo coloring. William James Harris’s contribution to the advertisement of Florida through the popular arts has been well established. Harris (1868-1940), from his St. Augustine shop, portrayed the uniqueness of the beauty found in natural Florida in his dreamy creations. It was in the treatment of the subject matter of this art, however, where the less famous photo colorist, Esmond Grenard Barnhill, established his own mark in Florida history while working in his photography business in St. Petersburg. Esmond was born in Saluda, South Carolina, on March 4, 1894, to Luther Hulen Barnhill and Bonna Estella “Stella” (nee Gilbreath) Barnhill. Thereafter the Barnhills took up residence in Tallulah Gorge, Georgia, a primary tourist destination because of a local waterfall that gave the town its nickname, “Niagara of the South.” It was here that the seeds for Esmond’s later business acumen were planted as he experienced first-hand, at an early age, that tourism often was built upon an elusive dream, a search for the unique place, and, perhaps, a quest for peaceful surroundings. I lay a tantalizing groundwork, yet I hadn’t stated why E.G. Barnhill’s photography matters. Barnhill’s most interesting and original photographs are black and white glass plates that he, or his employees, hand-colored with uranium dyes, yielding intense, unearthly glows. They are a step beyond the standard oratones, or gold toning process, of the day–a hundred years ago. For what it’s worth, some collectors claim that these radiant photographs “are like pre-Highwaymen paintings.” I’ve even heard it said that Barnhill influenced the Highwaymen. But there is no evidence they ever saw, much less studied, Barnhill’s rich coloration; nor is there any indication that A.E. Backus, the regionalist who influenced the Highwaymen, had taken stock in Barnhill’s work. I had to work through some weak spots I was dealt to understand the Curtis-Barnhill connection. The famed photographer Edward Curtis’s imagery of Native Americans is monumental in scope, but also highly romanticized. Although I had access to the Barnhill family, others’ research, and archival papers, it took years to lace E.G. Barnhill’s life and meaning together. Kathy Turgeon deserves recognition. More than a decade before I became interested in Barnhill, she initiated painstaking research into his life. Kathy graciously shared this with me. My task was to separate fact from fancy. I was not certain where Barnhill was born at the start of my research. His narrative was that murky; less discernable facts have fallen to lore and remembrances, making parts of E.G.’s life and work indeterminable. I could not piece together, with certainty, his whereabouts during his late teenage years and early twenties. Most seem to have been spent in Florida, wandering about until establishing a permanent residence in burgeoning St. Petersburg. It was even uncertain whether Esmond was born in Saluda, North Carolina, or in Andrews, North Carolina. Also one source inaccurately cites his birth year as 1892, per family genealogy that family members say is incorrect. E. G., as he was often addressed, left a murky biography; he was also called John. Even his middle name caused problems; it was referenced as Gerrard by the popular press, Gunard in the family genealogy, and as Grenard, per copyright registration, which is the only legal document to have surfaced. By the way, 59 separate registrations were found for photographs and pictorial illustrations for the years 1926-1930 for Barnhill, according to Anthony J. Bogucki, Bibliographer, Reference and Bibliography Section of the Library of Congress, in 1993, whereas the Library of Congress reported no records for Barnhill in 2007; they may have, of course, been purged. This all clouded his relationship with the painter Ralph Wilcox and with the photographer Edward Curtis, assuming he actually had one with either man. It casts a pall over the presumption that he learned the gold toning technique that yielded honey-colored images on glass from Curtis while out west, before settling in Florida. Since E.G.’s travels were uncertain, it is a very long shot that he gleaned them from the photographer Richard LeSesne in Seabreeze (Daytona). Since a writer must consider all, even the most fanciful ones, I dared to think that Barnhill imparted the technique to Curtis. (While writing the Highwaymen books, I pondered the sacrilegious notion that their art might have influenced Backus. After all, they came into their own as he was entering a sedate time in his artistic career.) I don’t necessarily doubt the accepted account of the Curtis-Barnhill connection, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t question it. Although undocumented, it is generally accepted that E.G. was in Seabreeze, and likely knew Wilcox; Wilcox did go to St. Petersburg and ostensibly saw Barnhill there, to sell or consign him prints of his paintings. That Barnhill hand-colored black-andwhite postcards and large prints of his photographs individually throughout his short photographic career, which one might have reasonably had assumed was a long one, raised my eyebrows. The thought that he had mass produced postcards and prints based on hand-colored original versions seems more plausible. He did both, at different times and for different markets, but that they all were painted by hand, as was claimed, is specious. Since some images of the same scene have slightly different coloration, this tantalizes the new proposition, suggesting that the original assumption remains accurate, although it’s feasible that he had used various originals when having the reproductions made that were colored afterwards. These are among the problems faced with Barnhill and other artists about whom there has been little concern. Records are especially scant when it comes to commercial artists; they produced products--inventories to be sold, not preserved and studied. Putting the pieces together concerning Barnhill’s relationship with Edward Curtis was difficult, and any conclusion remains tenuous. The story holds t he teenaged Barnhill met, or worked for or with Curtis, when he went west during his late teens. This may be true, although it is certain that he was in the west later. A young Barnhill was known to hop trains and since he didn’t finish high school in New York, may well have been in search of a trade. He had a fascination with Indian culture and knowledge of photography. He also had high spirits. But neither of Barnill’s sons, Clay or Jack, claimed that their father ever met Curtis. However, Jack remembers Curtis’s photographs hanging in one of his father’s shops for sale. Curtis’s exotic images of “the vanishing race” of Indians took many forms, the most unique of which was gold toning. The official time of the introduction of Curtis’s gold tones is 1916, and this is a later date than readily fits the facts of this version of Barnhill’s association with Curtis. Barnhill would be establishing himself in Florida then, and likely even producing his own gold tones by that time. Nonetheless, a signature image of Curtis’s that was taken in 1905 appears as a gold tone version more than a decade later; likely Curtis was experimenting and even producing gold tones prior to their official unveiling. Barnhill could have been with Curtis while he was finetuning his gold toning, or he may have known Edward’s younger brother, photographer Asashel Curtis, who was privy to the techniques his brother employed. Further more, scholar Mick Gidley places Curtis in Florida as he recalls that he photographed the construction of “a fine Coral Gables hotel.” By this time, though, Barnhill was done with the exotic gold toning process, and was in fact eyeing other ventures all together. If indeed Curt is was in Florida then, he could have very well met Barnhill because of their shared Indian interests. Bruce Kapsan “was [recently] working with the Getty Research Institute’s collection of Curtis Papers, circa 1900-1935, and found no mention of an E. G. Barnhill whatsoever in their archive.” Tracey Schuster, who heads the Special Collections and Visual Resources Reference division of the Getty Research Institute’s Research Library, reports that the “Edward Curtis papers (acc.no.850111) consists primarily of materials documenting the promotion and publication of ‘The North American Indian’ and the film, ‘In the Land of the Headhunters.’ There is no correspondence and no reference to Barnhill. Bruce Kapsan adds that there is no mention of Barnhill in his own files on Curtis’s Seattle studio, either. James Stack of the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections Division reports that there is “no reference to Esmond Barnhill or anyone named Barnhill for that matter.” He points out, “This isn’t to say they never met, as many photographers passed through the Curtis studios in those days, most staying around for only a short time.” Another premier gallery owner specializing in Curtis’s work, Lois Flury, was not aware of Barnhill. She pointed out, though, that “besides field travels, Curtis traveled widely and met all sorts of people while trying to sell his sets of photographs.” Flury says that some “twelve different photographers worked in the Northwest with gold toning,” adding, “Curtis did it the best.” In Flor ida, Richard LeSesne made gold tones of the semi-topics surrounding what would become Daytona Beach, especially along the Halifax River. Barnhill had access to his images, and as far-fetched as this might sound, as contrary to accepted belief that it is, the notion that Barnhill learned the technique from LeSesne and imparted it to Curtis couldn’t be dismissed out of hand. But keen researchers Dick and Yvonne Punnett and John McSwain about Florida handcolored photographs and LeSesne experts believe that LeSesne made his gold tones in the early to mid 1920s. Perhaps it was the other way around: As Bruce Kapsan points out, “Unless a document exists to prove [the] claim of employment at the Seattle Curtis Studio, I’m sorry to say that the claim is simply insupportable hearsay in my opinion.” Further, there is no mention of Barnhill; no reports exist of the aspiring artist-businessman in the Daytona Beach newspapers, but this means little since he was an ambulatory upstart during the town’s glamour days when other notable Florida photographers were hard at work. Newspapers don’t report all the news, and don’t always get what they report right. The circulating claim, though, that Barnhill was based, even for a while in Daytona, is unsupportable; furthermore, there’s no record of him in city directories. There seems to be little record at all concerning Barnhill. I was curious to see if I could find which institutions hold his work, but I did not find him listed in the George Eastman House’s Index to American Photographic Collections. Doubtless his work must be held by a number of libraries, museums, and archives in Florida…” All this gives credence to my idea that I should have, at first inkling, bought the proverbial red Porsche years earlier. Many questions and more questionable things about Barnhill came to the fore. Some were seemingly less than scrupulous, like his making treasure maps, offering a bullet-ridden vest claimed to have been worn by Gen. George Custer, and embellishing rocks to be passed off as gems. A grandchild caught E.G. in the act when, at a service station’s gift shop, he gave the boy a souvenir ashtray and told him to cherish it, that it was a valuable antique. The child went to the restroom and on the way out noticed stacks of these “rare artifacts.” Nevertheless to say, this incident sheds light too on the possibility that E.G. Barnhill was a red blooded American capitalist, and an original one at that. Gary Monroe, a native Floridian, received a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is a faculty member at Daytona State College. In addition to photographing people and culture in numerous countries, he has written nine books about Florida art, which are published by University Press of Florida. Exemplified by his seminal work,The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters, Mr. Monroe’s books explore uncharted cultural territories and constitute a meaningful part of our social history. His most recent book is E. G Barnhill: Florida Photographer, Adventurer, Entrepreneur.
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