Photography changes how we choose to recast experience

Shannon Thomas Perich

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Shannon Thomas Perich [ BIO ]

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Shannon Thomas Perich

Shannon Thomas Perich, associate curator in the Photographic History Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), is author of Portrait of a Family that explores Richard Avedon's January 3, 1961 photographs of John F. Kennedy and family. A regular contributor to NPR's Picture Show and the NMAH blog, Perich also teaches history of photography at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Her next book, From Daguerreotype to Digital: Ten Case Studies in Photographic Portraiture is due out in Spring 2011.

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Shannon Thomas Perich, associate curator in the Photographic History Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), shows how a unique Civil War era college yearbook poignantly reveals the complexity of history.

The Rutgers College Yearbook of 1860 holds many intertwined stories, which explains why it was collected by the National Museum of American History. It is a wonderful example of an early photographic yearbook by George K. Warren, and it was owned by a Texan who died as a Confederate officer in the Civil War. The messages his professors and friends wrote to him offer a glimpse into the political dialogue and interpersonal tensions that shaped American life at the brink of the Civil War.

Photographer George K. Warren (1832-84) opened his first studio in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1851, with the help of his parents. He started out as a daguerreotypist and transitioned to the glass negative process in the late 1850s. Negatives offered photographers the opportunity to reproduce one image multiple times, and seeking way to maximize that potential, Warren hit upon the idea of creating albums, or yearbooks, as we would call them today. His business strategy was clever. At a time when photography was still a novelty, he interested students in purchasing photo albums that would reflect their experiences at school, but first secured commitments from them to purchase a minimum number of portraits and related photographic images before their one-of-a-kind yearbooks would be produced. Boston, with its wealth of universities and colleges, proved to be a rich market for his services and product. Warren traveled to educational institutions including Phillips Academy, Brown, Williams, Union College, and Harvard University where he set up appointments to make portrait of students, college presidents, professors, and housekeepers. In addition, he photographed campus buildings and landscapes.

The negatives Warren made would be printed in his studios and pages for individual books were assembled according to students’ requests. This Rutgers yearbook from the class of 1859-60, includes not only the portrait of its owner, George W. McNeel, and images of his friends and professors, but also one of the photographer, which is inscribed, “Photographically I’m Yours.” The bundles of photographic prints selected by students were then trimmed, mounted on individual sheets, and sent to a bookbinder for finishing touches that might include, embossing, gilding, and the addition of the owner’s name. Warren’s business was profitable and popular. In the fall of 1859 he made more than $1,000 at Union College, alone.

McNeel (who was born in 1837 at Ellerslie Plantation in Brazoria County, Texas), his younger brother, and a cousin all attended Rutgers. It is not clear why a New Jersey college was chosen by these Texans, but perhaps it represented a middle ground of sorts. What we see in several of the parting yearbook messages to McNeel, written on the interleaving pages separating the photographs, are acknowledgements of the political tensions of the north and south that were building.

McNeel’s friend, William Brownlee Voorhees, who became a clergyman, echoed much of what Mathematics Professor and Rutger’s Vice-President Theodore Strong had written on the interleaving before his photograph in the album. Voorhees wrote,

My Southern Friend,

When we have finished our College course, and you have gone to your Southern home, remember that you are a citizen of a great republic. As such, be loyal, and countenance no schemes of personal or sectional aggrandizement. Tell your friends and neighbors that from your certain knowledge there is a great, conservative, Union-loving people at the North; that they look upon our country as one country, and never will consent to its dissolution. Tell them how a Frelinghuysen [the president of Rutgers] pleads their rights, and teaches his students to uphold the Constitution and the laws.

These words must have held much meaning for McNeel. We know, from contemporary accounts, that he was well received at Rutgers. He was a member of the Zeta Psi fraternity and worked on a student magazine. At the June 20, 1860 commencement ceremony, McNeel gave a speech entitled, “Success, the Offspring of Effort,” that was noted in the New York Times as being short, sensible, and eloquent. After graduation, he remained in New Jersey where he attended Princeton University and married Maria Pell Brower in New York, further mixing his allegiances between the North and South. Whatever his political positions may have been, the call of war soon beckoned him home where, in September 1861 he joined the cavalry unit known as Terry’s Texas Rangers. McNeel died in battle on May 7, 1864 in Louisiana as a Major and Assistant Inspector General under General J.A. Wharton’s command.

This unique album represents a success story for photographer George K. Warren and serves as a predecessor to the rather common yearbook we know today. But it also holds the personal sentiments and political positions of men who lived and struggled with the onset of civil war, giving us a unique insight into what friends and colleagues chose to say to each other. Here, history is made personal and poignant and revealed to be complex; as we turn pages, we learn a bit of how George W. McNeel’s life straddled both sides of the war, until he had to pick a side.

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Front and back covers, from George W. McNeel's Rutgers Yearbook, George K. Warren, 1859-60, NMAH catalog number 2003.0149.01.
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  • Front and back covers, from George W. McNeel's Rutgers Yearbook, George K. Warren, 1859-60, NMAH catalog number 2003.0149.01.
George McNeel, from George W. McNeel's Rutgers Yearbook, George K. Warren, 1859-60, NMAH catalog number 2003.0149.01.
  • George McNeel, from George W. McNeel's Rutgers Yearbook, George K. Warren, 1859-60, NMAH catalog number 2003.0149.01.
George K. Warren, from George W. McNeel's Rutgers Yearbook, George K. Warren, 1859-60, NMAH catalog number 2003.0149.01.
  • George K. Warren, from George W. McNeel's Rutgers Yearbook, George K. Warren, 1859-60, NMAH catalog number 2003.0149.01.
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Message from Theodore Strong, from George W. McNeel's Rutgers Yearbook by George K. Warren
  • Message from Theodore Strong, from George W. McNeel's Rutgers Yearbook, c. 1859
  • George K. Warren
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William Brownlee Voorhees, from George W. McNeel's Rutgers Yearbook, George K. Warren, 1859-60, NMAH catalog number 2003.0149.01.
  • William Brownlee Voorhees, from George W. McNeel's Rutgers Yearbook, George K. Warren, 1859-60, NMAH catalog number 2003.0149.01.
  • Read image description

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