150 Years of Northampton Photography documents the evolution of the photographic process, a place and a people. We set out to select, scan, print and display 70 images of Forbes Library's own from a collection of more than 50,000. This frame of time begins with steam as the motive power of industry, horses were the local transport of choice, from a time long ago when men wore hats. It spans two World Wars, Vietnam and the current conflict in Iraq. The list of changes is immense and profound from birth control to mass production and beyond. This approach at explaining this exhibit focuses on the differences that separate us from the people looking back at us from the past. The oldest dated image in this show is the 1869 train wreck photo entitled Pumpkin Flood. The image was produced by chemical reaction on a glass plate negative, a process that is now being superceded by digital photography. Although the process of capturing the image may have changed radically the final product when printed onto paper is much the same. In both cases the final result is a fairly small two-dimensional image that preserves a moment in time from one perspective. What we have is a record of how light scattered into a recording device.
We believe that the people in these few photographs are more similar to you and I than different. They walked on our sidewalks as we walk on theirs, we shop in their stores as they once shopped in ours. When we look at them I believe that we look back at us. In the more candid photos people look shy, bored, amused, concerned, just like us. They pose for the camera as we do. A Girl Scout looks a bit mischievous, boys play by the Haydenville train wreck which was surely the big event in the neighborhood at that moment. A man looks at the undercarriage of the overturned train taking advantage of an uncommon view of a then common object, a steam train. Would we do any different? Northampton is a different kind of place and we are heir to a tradition passed down to us from the people that you see here. The people in these pictures aren't ghosts. They're who we were 150, 100, 50 and 5 years ago. On a warm summer evening you can still understand why Jenny Lind called this place Paradise so long ago and the name has stuck so tenaciously. It's not hard to grasp how the choice was made to site Smith College here and how the college and the town shaped each others lives. Look through the Gazette photos and you'll see a continuum, the peculiar people of the Pioneer Valley an unbroken chain of individuals being just that, themselves, a rare and priceless thing. If you have ever pulled the rewind lever on a camera or smiled into the lens then you are here. This is not an exhibit of great men, historic events, or other immovable monuments this is about the people past and present that you see every day. We laugh at the same jokes, they send boys to war in far off places, they stage productions at the Academy of Music and witness the change of seasons and the ebb and flow of Smith students from this place, Northampton Massachusetts. (2004)
Curated by Faith Kaufmann and Forbes Library staff; Digital prints by Faith Kaufmann