'No Mere Button-Pressers' brings century-old, fine-art photographs of Newark to life

Joel Oliphint
Positive image of a glass plate negative by Ema Spencer, circa1909.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Newark photographer Clarence H. White would think all week about the two photos he would make over the weekend — the subjects, the lighting, the background. And selecting the shot was only the first step. White then had to make the glass plate negatives and experiment with printing. It was the opposite of burst mode.

The painstaking process required technical skill and an artist’s eye, but photography at that time was nevertheless struggling to be viewed as a fine art medium on the level of painting and sculpture. And Kodak wasn’t helping things. The camera company entered the market in the late 1880s, allowing customers to simply press a button to take a photo. After filling the camera with 100 exposures, the camera would be sent away, where the film would be developed and returned along with the camera. “You press the button, we do the rest” was Kodak’s motto.

White and his contemporaries, like fellow Newark photographer Ema Spencer, aimed to set themselves apart from these “Kodakers” and “Kodak fiends.” In fact, White and Spencer both belonged to the Newark Camera Club, and in an 1898 essay, Spencer described the Central Ohio group as a collection of artists who were “no mere ‘button-pressers.’”

A new photography exhibition at the Columbus Museum of Art that takes its title from Spencer’s words — “No Mere Button-Pressers: Clarence H. White, Ema Spencer, and The Newark Camera Club” — opened at CMA earlier this month. The exhibit is a joint production with Newark’s The Works, which is currently closed due to the Level 3 Public Health Emergency in Licking County.

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White became a photographer of great renown after he left Ohio for New York City, but he was always best known for his photos of the Newark area, which he made while working as a grocery store bookkeeper as a young man. White was part of the Photo-Secession Movement, which argued that photography was, indeed, a fine art, and his photos in “No Mere Button-Pressers” subscribe to Pictorialism, which is often characterized by a gauze-like, romantic quality.

“Pictorialism is commonly associated with blurry photos, or photos that have a kind of brushy, evocative quality. This was a way of showing the artist's hand — showing that the photograph wasn't just a snapshot of real life. It was something that was a made thing — something that was fabricated and crafted, just like a painting, just like a sculpture,” said Anna Lee, associate curator of photography at the Columbus Museum of Art. “The artist wasn't just an operator of a machine. There was a brain and a real creative agent behind the making of the photographs.”

It’s no surprise, then, that White’s photos of Newark tend to reveal a romantic side of the then-industrial city. He took images of the countryside and other natural settings that lent themselves to his desired aesthetic qualities. In portraits, he often would dress models in antique dresses to evoke the nostalgia of a bygone era.

Spencer’s legacy faded over time, though she was quite prominent in her day, Lee said, exhibiting her work internationally while also promoting the work of White. Spencer’s work focused on family life, even though Spencer herself never married (and never left Ohio). “She represents children in really sensitive ways. You can tell that she's amused by them and charmed by them, and she's really focused on the interactions they have with each other, and with animals in certain cases, and the way they played, the way they interacted with adults,” Lee said.

In gathering materials for the show, Lee worked with the curator of the Webb House Museum in Newark, who told her about the boxes and boxes of Spencer’s glass plate negatives the museum was storing. “I started thinking about how wonderful it would be to see the negatives printed as platinum-palladium prints,” said Lee, who happened to know a photographer who works in the medium: Lois Conner. “I told her a little bit about the project, and she was really excited because she had actually seen Spencer's work in reproduction before, but she had never seen actual prints.”

Conner interpreted a series of Spencer’s negatives at the CMA show, most of which depict Spencer’s younger brother, Charles, and his family. In making the images, Conner had to make a series of creative decisions, taking into account the type of paper that would be historically similar to the paper used in Spencer’s day, not to mention solarization and other so-called flaws on the negatives.

“There were things about the negatives that you might think of as an imperfection, or maybe they weren't stored in the best conditions, but [Conner] saw these as really beautiful signs of their age and the kind of life that they had lived as an object,” Lee said.

Lee also values the partnership between CMA and the Works, and the way the two institutions collaborated with different but complementary emphases. “[The Works] isn’t necessarily as interested in making sure that the prints are perfect. ... They want people to be able to see the images, and they're interested in the role the images play in telling the stories they'd like to tell,” Lee said. “That was a fun exercise for me, and it was nice to think about how institutions function differently and what their individual priorities are and how they can work together to tell a story in a really expansive way with multiple dimensions.”

Clarence H. White photo from the Hubbard House Portfolio, 1904.