Since childhood I have been infused with our family’s artistic heritage: my artist/illustrator great-grandfather (on my father’s side) Chester Loomis, architect/artist grandfather Charles Dana Loomis, and uncle artist/educator Dana Loomis. On my mother’s side there was an artist great-uncle Georges Wiren and cousin Clifford Ashley.
Let’s be honest: I didn’t inherit an ounce of their artistic ability. I have siblings and cousins who are talented artists, but that ability didn’t rub off on me. I can’t paint or draw, even in the most rudimentary ways. Yet I’ve always felt myself to be creative. While painting and drawing weren’t my forte, I would try my hand at pottery, embroidery, sewing, knitting, gardening — anything that would feed my creative fire. And then I found photography, and I knew I had found my creative home.
What I love about this passion of mine is that it connects me with my family. Not with the successful artistic men in my family, but with one of the many creative women — my grandmother. She was born in the late 1800s, and was in her teens and twenties in the period between 1900 and 1920. She grew up in Brooklyn, and later spent summers in Washington, Connecticut where her parents had built a home.
My grandmother was something of a rebel for her time. According to family lore, she had one of the first motor cars in her friends’ circle, and she turned down a marriage proposal from my grandfather the first time he asked. Luckily, he asked again.
I didn’t know her intimately, but I loved visiting her home in Ruxton outside of Baltimore, exploring the attic and basement, playing endless games of the “Around the World” board game (I think she cheated), hearing about her travels, playing dress-up with my sisters in her beloved garden, drinking ginger-ale and eating Goldfish crackers during cocktail hour while the grownups solved all the problems of the world. I can imagine that she had a busy, productive life, but I got the sense that she felt outshined by her husband during her marriage, as were many women of the early 20th century. She lived to be 101, outliving her husband and both of her sons (one of them my father), and she was a feisty, fascinating woman until the end of her life.
What intrigues and inspires me most about her is that in 1914 she enrolled in Clarence White’s School of Photography, and graduated in 1915. It’s not clear if she attended in New York, Connecticut, or at his school in Maine, but the photographs taken by her and of her by other students are perfect examples of the early 20th century vision of beauty, imagination, and artistry that I find so inspiring, even in this modern age of photography.
Much has been written about Clarence White and his photographs, his schools, and his life. I can only say — from stories from family and cousins — that my grandmother found that her experience at his school and her relationships with other photographers to be a highlight of her life.
Here are photographs of her, taken by Clarence White and her fellow students:
And here are photographs that she took of her friends and family. You can see that she was experimenting with shadows and silhouettes in some of the images:
Imagine my surprise when Dan and I visited the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, (where the Clarence White and His World exhibit was being featured) and Dan asked me my grandmother’s name. I said Dorothy Abbot Loomis. And he showed me this photograph.
The photograph, taken by my grandmother of a fellow student at Clarence White’s school, was probably an experiment in light and shadow, and is not high art. But to me it is breathtaking. To see a photograph taken by my grandmother exhibited in a major photography exhibit is nothing short of thrilling. She would have been thrilled too, I think.
Here’s to you Grandma Loo! I wish we could have talked about your passion for photography when you where alive. I love you, and am SO proud.