248 pages, 146 photographs printed in duotone, 7 maps, 8-1/2
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1043-3, $29.95
By the beginning of the twentieth century, photography had become accessible to average Americans as a means of documenting their lives. Although most people did not yet own cameras, they flocked to commercial photographers for affordable portraits that became the family heirlooms we gape at in wonder today. One of the most accomplished of these photographers was Joseph Judd Pennell of Junction City, Kansas.
Pennell had one of the best equipped studios in the state and took thousands of photographs recording the public life of his town. People from all walks of life posed for his camera, and his images not only constitute one of America's great photography collections but also one of the richest visual documentations we have of this era.
Our Town on the Plains reproduces more than one hundred of Pennell's best photographs. Taken from 1893 to 1922, these wonderfully crisp images depict life in Junction City and nearby Fort Riley: people posing with studio props or in front of their homes, group shots of schools and clubs, commissioned photographs of buildings and businesses, public events like parades and unveilings, and ordinary people at work on their farms and in their shops.
These photographs suggest a world of solid civic and personal values, with Pennell's wide-angle lens lending a sense of spaciousness to everyday life. We see a baseball diamond from the late 1800s and a bar so typical of its day it was used in the opening credits of Cheers, images as inspiring as Teddy Roosevelt on the campaign trail or as nostalgic as storefront windows with groceries or corsets. They also depict a time of major transition in American life, as some people pose with their horse and buggy and others with their automobile.
James Shortridge's text, interwoven with Pennell's images, takes readers on a stroll through Junction City in this golden age and points out many of the changes that were sweeping America. An introductory essay by art historian John Pultz reviews Pennell's career during the heyday of studio photography.
Pennell's work is widely celebrated, having appeared in numerous books and PBS documentaries. Our Town on the Plains now preserves some of the best of those photographs in a volume through which we can visit our past and, in the process, discover ourselves.
JAMES R. SHORTRIDGE is a professor of geography at the University of Kansas. Among his other books are Peopling the Plains: Who Settled Where in Frontier Kansas, Kaw Valley Landscapes: A Traveler's Guide to Northeastern Kansas, and The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture, winner of the John Brinckerhoff Jackson Prize.
JOHN PULTZ is curator of photography at the University of Kansas's Spencer Art Museum.