Early naturalist's photos of Fairfield are idealized images in a time of change
Published 11:47 am, Tuesday, July 8, 2014
Is Fairfield the "ideal suburb"?
One woman who thought so as far back as the turn of the 20th century was early conservationist, lecturer and novelist Mabel Osgood Wright.
Wright, who was quite famous in her time, is the subject of a new exhibition at the Fairfield Museum and History Center: "Picturing Fairfield: The Photographs of Mabel Osgood Wright," which opened last week and runs through Sept. 16.
The exhibit, presented as part of the museum's continuing celebration of the town's 375th anniversary, provides a window onto the region's agrarian past through Wright's camera lens -- all in "living color."
It features a selection of about two dozen poster-board blow-ups of Wright's original "lantern" slides, which she took to accompany her lectures around the country in the early 1900s.
The black-and-white rectangular glass slides were then hand-painted in colorful hues in the photography studio of John D. Scott in New York City, explained museum curator Andrea Renner.
In that way, the slides could be shown with dramatic effect when projected onto a wall by these early image projectors.
Wright (1859-1934) often focused on the then-rural aspects of the town's "countryside and its homes, gardens and people," explained Renner.
Wright's name may be familiar to area residents: She helped to found the Connecticut Audubon Society and the Birdcraft Sanctuary on Unquowa Road as a bird refuge, served on the national board of the Audubon Society and wrote many popular field guides on the region's wildlife.
The curator said that the naturalist "always preferred the country to the city."
Raised in New York City, Wright "savored the summers she spent at Mosswood, her family's retreat in then-rural Fairfield (at 275 Unquowa Road, not far from the train station) and made it her permanent home in 1884 after she married.
"Living at a time when the United States was rapidly shifting from an agrarian to an industrial and urban country, Wright became an avid conservationist, making the preservation of New England's wildlife and countryside her life's work," the curator writes in her notes about the exhibition. "From early on, photography was instrumental to (her) conservationist efforts, a means to document the disappearing landscape around her.
"At times nostalgic and sentimental, Wright's photographs ... present Fairfield as a traditional New England town. At a time when many writers and thinkers were increasingly worried that the nation was losing its `rural virtue' to the growth of the city, Wright's photographs portray Fairfield as an ideal suburb, an antidote to what she viewed as the `whirpool' of city life," according to Renner.
"As we celebrate the 375th anniversary, we're looking at various aspects of the `Fairfield experience' through history (when it included all of present-day Black Rock and portions of what is now Bridgeport, Easton and Westport), she noted. Other shoreline towns settled in 1639 are Stratford (which also included parts of present-day Bridgeport), Milford and Guilford.
"As Mabel set out to document a Fairfield that was disappearing in many ways in the early 20th century, we now in the 21st century also are looking back at life in Fairfield in the mid- and later-20th century," she said, noting that a concurrent exhibition "Growing Up in Fairfield: Memories and Milestones" explores growing up in Fairfield from the 1940s and beyond.
The Wright exhibition is divided into four distinct sections, Renner pointed out on a recent tour. "The Countryside" focuses on Fairfield's mills, farms and wildlife, which "all faced an uncertain future at the turn of the 20th century." In "The Homes," Wright's interests in "Colonial houses are indicative of her interest in preserving the town's history, but they also exemplify the turn-of-the-century suburban ideal -- the image of a tasteful country home set within a handsome garden," Renner said.
"The Gardens" section notes that in her writing and lectures, "Wright urged women to become active gardeners," using the garden "as a point of departure to teach women about the environment ... (and to) embolden women to expand their activities outside the home and become active conservationists in the larger world."
In "The People" section, Renner points out that "Wright's camera documents the different types of people that populated Fairfield at the turn of the 20th century: the millers, the leisured women and the livery workers. They are captured partaking in new and modern activities, such as riding bicycles, as well as the traditional clambakes and horse rides."
Renner added: "As today, most of Wright's photographs portray Fairfield's residents enjoying the town's natural surroundings, its seashore and its woods."
The Fairfield Museum and History Center, 370 Beach Road, open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission $5, $3 for students and seniors, free for 5 and younger. 203-259-1598; www.fairfieldhistory.org.