On the second floor of the Charleston Museum, nestled between the Civil War and the Natural History galleries, hangs a charming series of 18 black and white photographs that are sure to give you a warm, fuzzy feeling. In the Company of Animals: Pets of Charleston features glimpses into the lives of Charlestonians and their relationships with their pets in the early 1900s.
If you thought filling your camera roll with pet pics was a modern phenomenon, these photos prove otherwise. Although photography was a much more complicated process at the time and required a darkroom, people were still determined to immortalize their favorite furballs on film. Even Charlotta Drayton, last member of the prominent Drayton family to live in Drayton Hall, can be seen cozying up to her pup in one of these photos.
The exhibition is the brainchild (or brainpet, perhaps?) of the museum’s archivist and collections manager, Jennifer McCormick. She came up with the idea while organizing the Museum’s extensive collection of historical photographs that have accumulated over the years.
“While I was going through them trying to get all of our images sorted, I started noticing how many images of pets we had,” says McCormick. “I thought, everybody loves their pets. Everyone can relate to these photos.” Most of the photos involve dogs, but there are some depicting cats, a goat, a pony, a parrot, and even a family portrait with a sheep.
There were many photos like these, but she managed to narrow them down to the 18 now hanging in the Lowcountry Image Gallery. After selecting which photos to include, she turned to the museum’s library and set to work identifying each photographer, subject, and animal breed for labeling.
“It was kind of a laborious process,” she says. “For example, there’s a dog called an American Staffordshire Terrier that looks a lot like a pitbull. Some are also saying that it might be an early Bull Terrier.”
The majority of the photos feature the work of three early photographers: Franklin Frost Sams, Morton B. Paine, and Chansonetta Stanley Emmons. Sams was a physician, but he was also a dedicated local photographer at the time. His family donated 577 of his prints to the museum in 1988. But Paine is especially well represented in this exhibition. He spent over 40 years capturing shots of the city’s daily movements, but as he grew older, he started taking more photos of his pets.
One of Paine’s photos shows Robert Achurch, another acclaimed photographer from early Charleston, giving his hunting dogs a soapy bath in the creek. “He and Paine were good friends, so they would photograph each other,” says McCormick. “Achurch really had a love for his animals. I think he had four or five dogs. I have one shot where he’s snuggling with five dogs in a single photo. In another, he’s playing with what looks like one of his little terrier mixes and making him howl.”
Emmons stands out as the only female represented. “It was kind of unusual at the time for a woman to be a photographer,” says McCormick. She’d been widowed by the age of 40, and photography became a way to make some extra cash. She traveled to many cities on photographic expeditions. She valued the authenticity of underrepresented communities and gave a great deal of her attention to capturing the common man in rural and domestic settings.
In Charleston, Emmons focused on plantation life. One photo in particular, titled “Nap Time Disturbed,” stands out from the rest. The photo shows a small boy and a puppy staring confusedly toward the camera having only just been woken up from a fireside snooze. It seems that Emmons, in attempting to capture a tender moment of boy and dog napping together, accidentally woke them up.
The image is somewhat blurred because of the abrupt movement and because Emmons didn’t have time to prop her heavy camera onto a tripod before the moment would pass. The bleary eyed curiosity of both boy and dog, complete with the dog’s head cocked to one side, makes the photo all the more endearing.
Pets of Charleston is an affirmation for animal lovers everywhere. For centuries, humans have shared a special companionship with the animals we bring into our homes. They’re more than entertaining housemates. They’re our best buddies, too. “It’s such a symbiotic relationship between an animal and a human. I think animals get as much pleasure from being pets as we get from them. This is really a feel-good exhibition,” says McCormick. [slideshow-1]
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