Harold Wagner: A Photographer of Time

HAROLD WAGNER | Courtesy of the Chautauqua Institution Archives
Chautauqua dignitaries gather at the Norton Hall Cornerstone laying ceremony Aug. 6, 1928. Front row, from left to right: Mrs. Ralph Norton, Ralph H. Norton, Lucy C. Norton, Vincent Norton and Beatrice Norton. Back row, from left to right: Earnest Hutchison, Arthur Bestor, Barret H. Clark and Edward Howard Griggs.

Harold Wagner, a Marietta, Ohio, photographer, announced in a 1919 Bulletin of Photography, he would open a studio at Chautauqua Institution in New York. Thus began Wagner’s approximately 30-year tenure as “official” Chautauqua photographer, a title that would produce many of the iconic photos that form the visual memory of Chautauqua life in the years between the World Wars.

The dates of his role as “official photographer” are not definite. In a 1979 letter to the Collections Index Update in Rochester, New York, listing photographers who had worked at Chautauqua, Margaret R. Dochterman, from Chautauqua Historical Collection Photographs, wrote “Harold Wagner, official photographer, 1922, until the late 1940s was probably the most prolific photographer.”

Other sources indicate 1919 or 1921.

The ending is equally murky. His last ad in The Chautauquan Daily digital archives was Aug. 25, 1951. His obituary claims 31 years as the “official” photographer, but does not indicate the years.

It can be argued that the exact dates are not essential. More essential is the fact that Wagner’s tenure followed the arc of Arthur Bestor’s Chautauqua presidency, affording Wagner the opportunity to photograph the nationally famous Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, John Philip Sousa, New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, Admiral Richard Byrd and 1936 Republican presidential candidate Alfred Landon.

More importantly, he was the go-to photographer for all special Institution programs and social events. He took staff, resident and visitor photos, as well as the panoply of group activities — whether kindergarten children on their miniature chairs, sports groups in action or residents dressed in their finery for evening social events. The photo archives he left behind record the society of a special place during a special time.

His second floor Colonnade studio became the photographic center of the Institution. His wife Blanche assisted him until their divorce in 1950.

Like many of his contemporaries, Wagner might have remained anonymous except for his slanted signature usually in the bottom right hand corner. A wanderer through the archives is arrested first by the quality of the photographs, then the fame of subjects, then the volume. The signature is an answer but only the beginning of an answer to the question, “Who was the man who took these pictures?”

His obituary states he was born in Marietta, Ohio, on Feb. 29, 1884. He would die there on Oct. 20, 1970. Though a graduate from Northwestern Pharmaceutical College of Medicine, he never practiced as a pharmacist. He joined his father in the Wagner Art Shop and continued the photography business until he closed the shop in April 1970 — 80 years after his father opened the store.

There are not many pictures of Wagner. An Aug. 20, 1926, Daily head shot portrayed an intelligent, patrician-looking man with a receding hairline, wearing round-wire spectacles who might be a doctor, lawyer or a clergyman. His expression is welcoming, smiling perhaps at some private awareness of the human condition. There are two other pictures: one, in the Aug. 4, 1967, Daily features a 1935 picture of Wagner receiving Old First Night contributions. The other is an archive photo of him with the Sunday morning ushers. He is wearing a navy blue blazer and white flannels, the summer uniform for Chautauqua men, and seems to be enjoying this chance to be on the other side of the camera.

By any standard, Wagner was an entrepreneur with marketing skill. He understood the importance of a high profile and an identifiable logo. He taught photography classes every summer, sponsored photography exhibits, was frequently interviewed in the Daily and annually turned the second floor Colonnade halls into a photo gallery.

He retained his distinctive ads — small squares with a single silhouette figure and brief text —  for as long as he came to Chautauqua. Sometimes the ads were statements of his convictions about photographic art.

One of his first ads, placed Aug. 9, 1919, in simple block text reads, “Expression is the thing. The important result in photographic portraiture is the expression of individuality. This is hard to get, but we do it.”

That early ad was a basic tenet of his work. Simply put, Wagner hoped to capture the personality of the person in front of his camera.

The Aug. 20, 1926, Daily article states “he is a philosopher in that he finds in human nature, when on exhibition before the camera, is as good a subject for study as when described in literature by great authors … for his photographs at their best show not only the face, but the mind behind it, and often they catch expressions that illumine faces with the best that is in their owners.”

In Wagner’s own words, “it is my ambition to make photographs that are something more than pictures of people. I want to make photographs that are portraits of the beauty that is within as well as of the attractiveness that in greater or less degree appears on the surface of every countenance posed before my camera.”

He seemed to have genuinely liked people: “Some of my best friends are people I met when they came in here to have their picture taken,” he said.

It is no wonder then that he and his wife Blanche became a Chautauqua power couple; he was photographing everyone. Their social activities were noted in the “Off the Plaza” column, they were graduates of the 1926 Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle class and members of the Methodist Church.

In 1935, Wagner served as a juror in the 1935 Mock Trial Amphitheater production and was one of “the qualified Chautauquans” asked to critique the 1941 production of the play Family Portraits. If there is any doubt as to their status, the reporting of the penultimate social event of the 1930s — Eleanor Roosevelt’s July 25, 1933, speech and reception — allays it. Blanche was an usher, and both are included in the column describing the outfits of Eleanor, Mina Miller Edison and others.

“Mrs. Harold Wagner had on an embroidered white organdy gown while her husband was splendid in a tuxedo,” the Daily reported.

He cared about Chautauqua, putting his money where his heart was. He and Blanche both donated time and money to end Chautauqua’s bankruptcy. They bought “Certificates of Sentimental Ownership” to assist Chautauqua’s finances in 1936. Wagner donated an Amphitheater photo to every Amp seat purchaser supporting the Chautauqua Women’s Club fundraising efforts.

Wagner’s reputation extended beyond the gates of Chautauqua, though most of the information for this article come from the Daily and Oliver Archives. He was listed in “Who’s Who in American Portrait Photography,” a member of the Photographers’ Association of America (now Professional Photographers of America) and the Professional Photographers Society of Ohio. His photos of Hospitality House (Logan), the Methodist House, the Hall of Christ and the Pergola are postcards.

He also produced the cover of the Aug. 5, 1935, Professional Photographer. The Aug. 10, 1935,  Daily article reports that the Aug. 5, 1935, cover of the Professional Photographer was a Wagner photo. The magazine itself described Wagner as “unassuming but with a broad and cheery smile” and noted that he “has many friends both in and out of the photographic profession. As with many of our previous cover selections, he is an example of a first-rank photographer in a comparatively small town.”

In 1938 he trekked from West Newton, Pennsylvania, to Marietta, Ohio as the “official” photographer of the Northwest Territory Association, which commemorated the opening of the Northwest Territory. One of his photos became a United States postage stamp.

But it is the photographs he took inside the Chautauqua gates which matter here. To repeat, they form a core, if not the core, of Chautauqua’s visual memory.

In his effort to capture on film the character and individuality of people, his photographs, in total, capture the character and individuality of a society in a special place in a specific time. To the contemporary viewer the Chautauqua memorialized is distinctive, not quite exotic, not quite quaint and simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.

It was a society bound by conventions which have loosened, if not disintegrated. There was attention to etiquette and, as Wagner captures, propriety and formality in dress and expression. Men were always in shirt and tie, it seems. Women didn’t cross their legs, they crossed their ankles.

Elizabeth Hall Lewis’ Aug. 16, 1937, Daily article echoes in prose what Wagner documents in pictures.

“Women over twenty-five simply didn’t appear on the public highways in summer shorts. In the morning sports cottons or simple silks are best and they are suitable at the Hall of Philosophy and Smith-Wilkes,” she wrote. “But in the evening one dresses up a little more; here is when the so called afternoon dress comes into play … formal dress prevails at Norton Hall, especially among holders of seats in the orchestra.”

It is interesting to note that Edward Curtis, the renowned photographer of a vanished Native American culture, was a contemporary. Though Wagner’s intentions were to capture the moment, perhaps when considering his Chautauqua photos in total, it can be said that Wagner photographed a vanished culture as well.