The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Alumni Fellow discusses history of photography in Iowa

The Daily Iowan; Photos by Ashle
Mary Bennett gives a talk about photography in Iowa in the Old Capital Museum on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. The talk discussed how photographs contribute to recording history here in Iowa City and famous photographers from the area. (Ashley Morris/The Daily Iowan)

It may be trite, but a Thursday evening lecture proved a picture is better than a thousand words.

University of Iowa graduate Mary Bennett (History M.A. ’85), the Special Collections coordinator for the State Historical Society of Iowa-Iowa City, presented a lecture that covered the history of photography in Iowa.

Bennett spoke about how local photographers captured the everyday lives of Iowa residents in the 19th and early 20th centuries. She also detailed the earliest examples of photography and included numerous photographs taken of 19th-century photography studios and darkrooms.

Before the lecture, Meenakshi Durham, the associate dean for outreach and engagement for the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, presented Bennett with a plaque for becoming a 2017 Liberal Arts Alumni Fellow. “This award is given annually to graduates of the Liberal Arts who have made outstanding achievements in their field,” Durham said.

She noted that award recipients have to be nominated by faculty members and that Bennett was nominated by Associate History Professor Steve Warren.

During the presentation, Bennett provided commentary while around a dozen famous Iowan photographers, including Bertha Shambaugh, Edith Mary Clark, and Fred W. Kent, had their own portraits displayed during a PowerPoint presentation alongside dozens of their photographs.

Pictures focused mostly on domestic life, with images of women washing dishes and clothes, or men pitching hay and, at times, working in factories. Numerous early photographs of children at play, or families fishing together or at picnics, were on display as well.

A few of the pictures showed Iowa City landmarks, such as Old Brick and the Old Capitol as they existed in the early 20th century.

“The one that was taken of the University of Iowa,” said attendee Francis Lebeda, referring to an early picture taken of the building. “It took a half hour to take that picture. A lot of people don’t realize that.”

While the historical photographs were the primary focus, many of the pictures were recent. Some of them captured images of labor protests and strikes in the 1940s, and the most recently focused on student protests against the Vietnam War at the UI.

Bennett, a native of Sioux City, was intrigued by history and photography when she attended the UI.

“I was in a photography class that Peter Feldstein taught, and on Friday afternoon, I went to hear [classes about] the history of photography … once I learned that story and learned I could apply it to Iowa, I was excited,” she said.

She began working at the State Historical Society of Iowa as a work-study student in 1974 and began a full-time job there in 1977. She is the author of the book An Iowa Album: A Photographic History, 1860-1920, which contains 397 photographs from throughout the state’s history.

Additionally, Bennett co-wrote a book about stereographs in Iowa. Both of her books were published by the UI Press.

Bennett feels photographs could be appreciated by anyone who saw them, regardless of literacy.

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