Emmons, Chansonetta Stanley (1858–1937)

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Emmons, Chansonetta Stanley (1858–1937)

American photographer and painter. Born Chansonetta Stanley in Kingfield, Maine, on December 30, 1858; died in Newton, Massachusetts, on March 18, 1937; one of eight children and only daughter of Liberty Solomon (a farmer and teacher) and Apphia (French) Stanley; sister of twins F.E. and F.O. Stanley, who created the Stanley Steamer automobile and the Stanley photographic dry plate; attended District No. I School, Kingfield, Maine; attended Western State Normal School, Farmington, Maine; studied painting with J.J. Enneking, William Preston Phelps, and J.G. Brown; married James Nathaniel Whitman Emmons (a businessman), on February 2, 1887; children: Dorothy Emmons (1891–1960, also a painter and photographer).

Modestly recognized during her time and nearly forgotten by the close of the 20th century, Chansonetta Stanley Emmons was one of the few people in the first 30 years of the century to photograph the "domestic vernacular," especially in northern New England. Beginning in the 1890s in her native village of Kingfield, Maine, she photographed the farmyards, barns, gristmills, kitchens, and parlors of her neighbors and friends, thus preserving for posterity the haunting images of a seemingly innocent and long-forgotten world. She also lugged her cumbersome box-type camera into the countrysides of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont and took some of her most forceful pictures during two trips to the South. In his book on Emmons, Marius Péladeau writes: "Not since the great genre artists of 19th-century America has the rural scene been so accurately and sympathetically preserved."

Emmons, the only girl in a family of seven boys, developed an early interest in art. She entered Western State Normal School intending to become an instructor and left wanting to become an artist. After teaching drawing and sketching in the New Portland and Kingfield schools, she later joined her brother F.E. Stanley in the more metropolitan area of Lewiston, where Emmons first became interested in photography. F.E. was a photographer and crayon artist who was working with his twin brother F.O. to perfect what would later become the successful dry-plate photographic process. (The brothers would also produce the Stanley Steamer automobile and become millionaires.) Around 1885, Chansonetta moved to Boston where she taught art and used her income to finance her own painting lessons. There, she met and married James Emmons, a businessman, and settled into life as a housewife and mother. The marriage was apparently a happy one, although James' borderline business skills kept the family constantly on the move. In 1895, F.O., thinking his sister needed more stability in her life, bought the couple a house in the New Dorchester section of Boston. Among Emmons' early photographs are 45 prints in a family album documenting the years between 1897 and 1899, and including pictures of home life in Dorchester. After the sudden death of her husband in 1898, she began to work more steadily at photography and continued to paint. Neither endeavor, however, brought in enough income to support her and her daughter Dorothy Emmons . Throughout the remainder of Emmons' life, her brother F.O. provided for her larger expenses.

After giving up her Dorchester home for a more modest duplex in Newton, Massachusetts, Emmons returned to Kingfield, Maine, to recover from her husband's death. She began a series of penetrating and incisive portrait photographs of relatives and old family friends, who considered her a bit odd and "citified" but were honored to pose for her nonetheless. A side excursion to New Hampshire in 1900 to take lessons in oil painting from the popular genre and landscape artist William Preston Phelps produced some of her most engaging photographs of children. By 1901, Emmons' work had reached professional quality,

and she had amassed a large enough body of prints to begin exhibiting her work.

Accompanied by her daughter Dorothy, Emmons continued to spend most of her summers in Kingfield, although she also made occasional excursions in other directions. Her trips to the Carolinas in 1897 and 1926 produced a variety of sensitive photographs portraying the beauty of the land as well as the dignity and poverty of many rural blacks and whites of the region. Péladeau theorizes that Emmons may have been fascinated by the area because it was so far removed from her own life: "It was as if old stereotypes of the South, which Chansonetta had been taught as a child—of a land of magnolia blossoms and ladies in hoop skirts—were immediately shattered and replaced by a harsh reality, with the result that Mrs. Emmons felt she had to go about feverishly photographing the South which she had discovered was not the one of her dreams."

From 1904 until her death, Emmons used a 5x7-inch Century camera and developed, printed, and matted all her photographs herself. For her interior shots, she relied only on a natural light source which she employed to create form and space. She never had an official darkroom and used the kitchen in Newton or an empty room or closet when she stayed on the road. The Kingfield residents remembered her as a perfectionist in everything, from the meticulous manner of her dress to the posing and composition of her photographs. One subject who modeled for her as a child remembered the endless hours spent in posing for her photographs and the countless exposures of the same scene with minute variations.

After Emmons' daughter Dorothy graduated from Wellesley, she became her mother's companion and chauffeur, almost a necessity due to Emmons' increasing deafness. Emmons never cultivated a wide circle of friends outside of those in Kingfield and Newton, and she limited her professional affiliations to the Guild of Photographers of the Society of Arts and Crafts in Boston and the American Artists' Professional League. She exhibited with the Guild for many years in the 1920s, including at the large Tricentennial Exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1927. In 1913, her South Carolina photographs were shown at the South Carolina Art Association in Charleston and at Wellesley College's Farnsworth Museum of Art.

To augment her income in the mid-1920s, Emmons had her best photographs made into glass-lantern slides, and she presented slide shows to women's groups and other social and civic organizations throughout eastern Massachusetts and the Franklin County area of Maine. All of the 103 lantern slides that comprised the show were hand-tinted by her daughter, who also narrated the presentation.

Emmons remained active through her later years, making money painting miniatures on ivory and experimenting with wood-block engraving. Her daughter's illness and long recuperation in 1935, however, sapped Emmons' strength, and a trip to Kingfield in 1936 was her last. In early March 1937, at age 79, she suffered a heart attack from which she never recovered. Chansonetta Emmons died in her sleep on March 18. After a private funeral, she was buried at Riverside Cemetery, overlooking the Carrabasset River, in Kingfield.


"The Face of Maine," in American Heritage. Vol. XIII, no. 2. February 1962, p. 45.

Péladeau, Marius B. Chansonetta: The Life and Photographs of Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, 1858–1937. Waldoboro, ME: Maine Antique Digest, 1977.

Barbara Morgan, Melrose, Massachusetts