Rena Hoisington, Curator & Dept Head of Prints, Drawings & Photographs
One of the most exciting, and challenging, aspects of starting a new curatorial position is immersing oneself in a new collection, especially as opportunities for discovery abound. Imagine my delighted surprise eight years ago when I came across Charles Norman Sladen’s album Great Chebeague Island, Maine. I could tell from its hand-stitched leather and fabric cover that this was no ordinary album of family photographs.
Opening the album past the bright yellow endpapers and the hand-lettered title page, one sees how Sladen has arranged and pasted down gelatin silver prints of family and friends on vacation in 1916 on Great Chebeague Island off the coast of southern Maine. Sladen then augmented these photographs—and sometimes visually connected them—with exquisite pen and black ink drawings.
The emergence of the handheld camera and roll film in the late nineteenth century brought about a meteoric rise in amateur photographers: men, women, even teenagers excited to enjoy and experiment with the new technology. The photographs in this album were probably taken not only by Sladen but also by his wife and his daughters, and perhaps friends.
Like the creators of most vernacular photographs from this period, Sladen himself is something of a mystery. But the images in his album possess an immediacy and familiarity that draw us in. The subjects of these informal snapshots are akin to those we find in our own incessant recording of our lives with digital cameras and smartphones: portraits of friends, family, and pets; landscape views; images capturing the pleasures of leisure; and, of course, silly but inspired moments (such as the picture of a man posing here as a monument).
And yet Sladen’s commemorative album is anything by a quotidian object. Particularly through its remarkable use of drawings, it reveals a sensibility that could transform everyday images into something singular and extraordinary. Slowly turning the pages of this oblong album, one seems to follow the unfolding pathways of Sladen’s memory and imagination with each stroke of his pen.
Watch the pages of the Sladen album turn below.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.