Saline's Photographer

Published In:
Community Observer, Winter 2006,
Winter 2006

Author: Grace Shackman

A Lansing exhibition features Lucretia Gillett.

Lucretia Gillett did a messy and demanding job usually performed, in her day, by men. She did it so well that for most of her career she was the only photographer in Saline.

Now some of her fascinating work—along with that of other Michigan photographers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—is on display in Lansing, thanks to collector Dave Tinder of Dearborn.

Born in 1820 in New York State, Gillett came to Saline in 1858 with her parents, George and Mary, her two younger sisters, Delia and Anne, and her brother, George, who was also a photographer.

George was a recent widower, and Lucretia never married. They worked together for several years starting in 1860, using a front room of the family home at 203 North Ann Arbor Street. In 1863 George moved to Ann Arbor, but his sister kept the Saline studio going until 1890.

In the nineteenth century, only about 5 percent of Michigan's photographers were women. Gillett used "Miss Lucretia Gillett" and later "L. A. Gillett" as her professional name. She worked with glass negatives, which had to be covered with a chemical base just before being put in the camera and then developed while still wet, so almost all her shots were done in her studio.

In the studio she also had more control over lighting. In the days before electricity, photographers posed subjects near windows and often used reflecting screens. All of Gillett's subjects look to their right, presumably toward a window.

In her early years in Saline, Gillett photographed Civil War soldiers who posed proudly in uniform. Civilian poses of the same period can be dated by stamps on the back of the picture that were required from August 1864 to August 1866 to help pay for the war. The ones on Gillett's pictures are canceled with her initials, L.A.G.

Gillett's subjects stand against a white wall, always on the same patterned rug, or sit, often on a carved wooden chair or one with a velvet seat cover and tassels. Sometimes a table is on the poser's left.

Most of Gillett's early work was in the form of cartes de visite, small photos shot with a multiple-lens camera and mounted on cardboard (eight were normally printed at a time). Originally used as business and calling cards, they soon became a fad. People collected pictures of friends, family members, and famous people, and put them in albums.

Dave Tinder has more than 100 Gillett carte-de-visite photos. He also has a pile of "cabinet cards," images about five by seven inches that were first manufactured in the late 1860s. Some of the pictures are just of faces, with the background blacked out. The subjects are people of all ages, including many children.

Tinder's Gillett collection includes a few oddities, such as a picture with two women in a boat, but the boat is sitting on top of the omnipresent rug, and a table is in the background. Another is of a sleeping cat curled up on one of her posing chairs. Tinder also owns two Gillett pictures of houses, probably ones near her home.

Gillett passed her skills on to others. F. Jay Haynes, a famous nineteenth-century photographer of Yellowstone National Park and other western scenes, studied in Saline during the years when Gillett was the only photographer there. She also trained another woman, Laura A. Greene, who worked as her assistant before setting up her own studio in Manchester.

Gillett's mother died in 1865. Her father, who had become an influential Saline citizen, lived until 1874. Gillett's sister Anne ran their home as a boardinghouse from 1870 to 1890. In 1890, the year she turned seventy, Gillett sold her business to Ypsilanti photographer George C. Waterman. Gillett and her sister moved to Long Beach, California, where she died in 1894.

One thousand photos—by Lucretia Gillett and others—from, Dave Tinder's collection are on display in Lansing through January 14. Gillett's photos can be found in numerous collections. Some are in the Saline Area Historical Society archives, others are with private owners, and a few are in the University of Michigan's Bentley and Clements libraries. But by far the most in a single place are in Tinder's collection.

Forty years ago, Tinder started collecting stereoscopic cards from around the world, but he soon began to concentrate on Michigan photographers. Most of his images date from 1840 to 1930. Tinder is coauthor of a forthcoming book about his collection from Wayne State University Press. He is also giving his collection to the Clements Library in several installments.

One thousand pictures from Tinder's collection of 100,000 photos are on display at Lansing's Michigan Historical Museum in the exhibition Michigan's Family Album, which runs through January 14. Several Washtenaw locations, including Bridgewater and Sharon Mills, are displayed in a section on forgotten villages. Images of the U-M pop up, as do pictures by Washtenaw County photographers besides Gillett, such as Lester Nichoson, who succeeded her for a short time as the Saline photographer, and E. E. Shaver of Chelsea. Prominent in the introductory section on Michigan photographers is a self-portrait of Lucretia Gillett.

—Grace Shackman

Photo Captions:

Gillett, shown here in a self-portrait, was one of Michigan's few women photographers in the ninteenth century.

One thousand photos - by Lucretia Gillett and others - from Dave Tinder's collection are on display in Lansing through January 14.