"...my contention is that photography isn't, can't be, and shouldn't be art, that its' value lies not in being art and that when it stops being straight documental recording and tries to be art it becomes neither."Rockwell Kent. Rockwell Kent's Personal Photograph Archive of His Home at Asgaard, Excursions to Denmark, Greenland, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and Monhegan Island, Circa 1931-1953. Approximately 1,400 7 x 5 inch black-and-white original photographs, developed and printed by Kent, mostly housed in thirty-one 6 x 7.5 inch albums, categorized in Kent's own hand on spine labels, the remainder, about 200, loose. About a dozen photographs are signed or hand-annotated by Kent on the verso. Most photographs bear "Rockwell Kent" ownership ink stamps on the verso; a few bear the ink stamp "For use as Original Drawing the Property of Rockwell Kent and to be returned to Au Sable Forks New York" on the verso. All examples in very good or better condition and several duplicate photographs are included in the archive.
Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) was an adventurer, artist, illustrator, writer and political activist who, upon his death, the New York Times described as "a thoughtful, troublesome, profoundly independent, odd and kind man who made an imperishable contribution to the art of bookmaking in the United States." Kent's life, travels, art and struggles have been well chronicled but this unique and intimate visual archive adds dimension to and "fleshes out the bones" of the story behind one of his most creative and important periods in the artist's career. And, the fact that this extraordinary archive survives at all is nothing short of extraordinary. In 1969 Kent's house in the Adirondacks, Asgaard, was struck by lightning and the house along with irreplaceable works of his art, memorabilia of his travels, and library were destroyed including the negatives of these photographs. Miraculously these photographs were saved by Kent himself, and they represent all of his photographic work. It is nearly impossible to convey a sense of the scope of the archive but the images primarily deal with life at Asgaard, trips to Greenland, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and later years at Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine. In short, these images show up time and again in Kent's work. A brief summary of the archival contents of each location follows:
Greenland, circa 1931-1935. Comprising sixteen albums containing approximately 500 photographs. Kent made his first trip to Greenland in 1929 and was captivated by the stark beauty of the polar landscapes. He returned in the early summer of 1931 and lived in the settlement of Igdlorssuit in the district of Umanak. There are four albums dedicated to Igdlorssuit and the Umanak district depicting coastal scenery, mountains, harbors, ice, local Inuit people, his second wife Frances, unidentified friends dog sleds, and the Kent's rough living conditions. If one has access to Kent's book Rockwell Kent's Greenland Journal (New York: Ivan Obolensky, Inc., 1962) it is quite easy to put the images in perspective and follow Kent's narrative pictorially. Other albums are labeled "Greenland Trip North", "Greenland Trip South", "Greenland Trip for Frances", "Greenland Ice", "Greenland Trip to Godhavn", "Greenland Holstenborg", and several others. Several photographs could possibly be of Salamina, Kent's Inuit lover, about whom he wrote and illustrated the book Salamina (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1935).
Enehoje and Faroe Islands, Denmark, circa 1929 or 1934. One album containing approximately 44 photographs featuring local houses, scenery, local architecture and unidentified people. Kent made at least two trips to Denmark and there are no clues as to which trips these photographs were taken.
Nome, Alaska, circa 1935. One album with approximately 45 photographs. Kent was commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department to create two panels for the Federal Post office in Washington, D.C. with the theme "Mail Service in the Arctic and Tropic Territories of the U.S.". These photographs, which feature aircraft, aerial shots of scenery, native people and mountains, were taken by Kent as he did research for the Arctic portion of the mural.
Puerto Rico, circa 1936. One album with approximately 42 photographs. These photographs were taken during Kent's trip to Puerto Rico to prepare for the U.S. Treasury Department commission of a mural to commemorate the mail service in the Arctic and tropic territories of the United States. To demonstrate sympathy with agitators seeking to end American dominance in Puerto Rico, Kent planted a cryptic message in a letter featured in the mural depicting mail service to Puerto Rico. As though sent from the Eskimos in the arctic mural, it translated: "To the people of Puerto Rico, our friends, go ahead, let us change chiefs. That alone can make us equal and free." The album contains images of scenery, beaches, local people, including several women dressed similarly to the subjects in his mural.
Asgaard (Au Sable Forks, New York) circa 1940-1949. Comprising six albums containing approximately 250 photographs. Kent purchased this idyllic 257 acre farm with his second wife Frances in 1928. He described the land around Asgaard: "And there, westward and heavenward, to the high ridge of Whiteface, northward to the northern limit of the mountains, southward to their highest peaks, was spread the full half-circle panorama of the Adirondacks. It was as if we had never seen the mountains before." He designed and built a house, barn and studio on the property of which he commented "So far removed are the house and its immediate surroundings from any traveled roads or neighboring farms that one feels the whole estate to be a world unto itself". These intimate images capture the beauty of Asgaard under a deep winter snow, in the full greenness of summer, Kent's studio, the mountains and surrounding territory in Kent's description above, dairy farm scenes, intimate photographs of Kent, his third wife Sally, their pets and friends and family on a picnic.
Monhegan Island, Maine, circa 1947-1953. Comprising four albums containing approximately 90 photographs. Kent was earlier taken by the rough beauty of Monhegan Island and lived there for five years (1905-1910). He returned for a visit in 1947 and later he and his wife Sally were able to reacquire the cottage he had built in 1907. These photographs are a treasure trove of exterior and interior shots of the cozy cottage. Many of Kent's works can be seen hanging on the walls. In addition to these images there are many candid shots of Kent and his wife Sally, their friends, and the scenery on the island. These were happy times for Kent and his wife, he wrote: "My body has grown old. I walk now where I used to run; step carefully where once I'd leap. But still, my eyes are good. And seeing, must I not respond to nature's beauty? I began to paint again, with undiminished love for the familiar scenes." However, even the tranquility of Monhegan could not shield the Kent from the fallout of his clash with Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Kent's left Monhegan never to return.
Additionally there remain two albums, one captioned "Hillsboro / Richmond"; the other "Arizona / Colorado / California", containing a total of approximately 69 photographs.
The archive concludes appropriately enough with a one page typed signed letter, 8.5" x 11", dated December 7, 1939, on Rockwell's Au Sable Forks, New York letterhead to Ralph D. Hartman reading in part: "I am glad my letter to Tom Maloney [editor of U.S. Camera Annual] amused you. I do not think it amused him, for my contention is that photography isn't, can't be, and shouldn't be art, that its' value lies not in being art and that when it stops being straight documental recording and tries to be art it becomes neither. Thank God that Brady of the Civil War period did not think he was an artist. Faithfully yours, Rockwell Kent". Whether one agrees with Mr. Kent or not, the fact remains that these photographs visually chronicle the places and people which inspired him to create art and, at the very least demonstrate there was a keen artistic eye behind the shutter.
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