Gerard C. Wertkin
Director, Museum of American Folk Art
One afternoon in the early 1980s, a group of students in the Museum of American Folk Art's graduate program in folk art studies at New York University gathered at the Museum for a remarkable class. Several members of the Museum's professional staff joined the session that day, and I was pleased to be among them. Dr. Stanley B. Burns, whom we knew principally as the donor of a collection of early photographic materials to the Museum, was there to demonstrate the unbroken continuity between painted and photographic portraiture in the context of American life and culture. I recall the fascination with which we watched as he spread out before us on a large conference table scores of daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes, which in composition, pose, and decoration paralleled the earlier painting tradition.
Of course, these links already had been established. It had long been recognized that the introduction of photography in America in 1839 - with the arrival here and production of the first daguerreotypes - had had a profound effect on American portraiture, not only the "art portraiture" of European trained academicians, but more importantly the folk or vernacular picture-making most often, but not exclusively, associated with the itinerant painters of the northeastern countryside. Indeed, the Museum itself had pointed to these links in its exhibitions and publications. What was refreshing about Dr. Burns' presentatthe session that day, and I was pleased to be among them. Dr. Stanley B. Burns, whom we knew principally as the donor of a collection of early photographic materials to the Museum, was there to demonstrate the unbroken continuity between painted and photographic portraiture in the context of American life and culture. I recall the fascination with which we watched as he spread out before us on a large conference table scores of daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes, which in coion during that memorable class was his clear demonstration, through one splendid example after another, that the historical continuity between the two media was one of aesthetic sensibility, intention and cultural setting, as well as stylistic convention.
Writers in the field of American folk art often assert that the ultimate effect of the post-1839 availability of photographic images was to deprive artisan portraitists of their commissions and to bring to an end the traditions that they represented. In this book, as well as in the exhibition it documents, Stanley Bums confutes this assertion. The framed, hand-painted tintype, he argues, not only continued these traditions into the early twentieth century but extended them to a wider segment of the population. American vernacular portraiture may have had its beginnings in the work of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century journeyman painters, but it had its fullest expression in the workrooms and studios of the photographers whose stories are told for the first time in this book.
My own introduction to this aspect of the author's collecting and scholarly interests took place three or four years ago, when I visited with him at The Bums Collection here in New York. Located in a Manhattan townhouse, the Collection is a vast archive of photographic art and history. As impressed as I was with the enormity of its holdings in many categories, it was Dr. Burns' vast assemblage of framed tintypes that immediately drew my special attention, for here, indeed, was a lost chapter in American portraiture.
While many images had a serious, even dour late-Victorian sensibility about them, others exhibited the robust, colorful qualities of the early folk portraits. In either case, there was an earnestness - a kind of purposefulness - in these photographs that was at once strangely engaging and warmly appealing. They clearly invited serious consideration and study, and the extensive documentation unearthed by Dr. Burns in pursuit of his research was almost as impressive as the images themselves. I encouraged him to continue his work notwithstanding the enormity of the challenge.
As Director of New York's Museum of American Folk Art, I am delighted that Dr. Stanley B. Burns has persevered in his work. As more and more attention is directed to the cultural aspirations and artistic attainments of "ordinary" Americans, the field represented by the Museum continues to grow and develop. In the tradition of other collector/scholars before him, Dr. Burns has enlivened the debate about the nature of folk and vernacular culture, while contributing new insights and new information to the field. Even more importantly, through the pages of this book and the exhibition it is intended to document, he has reclaimed a forgotten aspect of our history and restored another lost part of the American heritage to its rightful place in our shared consciousness, For that surely, he deserves our thanks.