A Photographic Artist: Morton B. Paine’s Shots of Speed
Mon.-Sat., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. & Sun., 12-5 p.m.
Through April 7, 2019
$12/adult, $10/youth, $5/child
360 Meeting St.
In 1906, racecar driver Fred Marriott set a land speed world record of 127.659 miles per hour at the Daytona Beach Road Course in Florida. There to capture the event was Charleston-born photographer Morton B. Paine Jr., a lifelong racing enthusiast.
“He was always interested in mechanical things, inventions,” says Jennifer McCormick, archivist and collections manager at the Charleston Museum. “So when the automobile first came out, that definitely became one of his passions.”
Paine’s fascination with racing often led him to photograph people and things in motion, and that creative focus is the foundation of the Charleston Museum’s ongoing exhibit A Photographic Artist: Morton B. Paine’s Shots of Speed, which runs through April 7 2019.
Paine would travel to Daytona to photograph automobile races, but he also stayed closer to home to shoot horse racing at Belvidere Plantation in Orangeburg County and boat races in the Charleston Harbor. No matter the subject, Paine was constantly experimenting with speed, light, and shadow, and he would often note the camera settings on the back of each photograph, McCormick says.
The images currently on display are part of a larger collection of glass plate negatives and prints. The works were all nearly destroyed in 1940 shortly before Paine’s death, when a Category 2 hurricane hit Charleston and flooded the ground floor of his residence. Paine’s sister, May, salvaged what she could and sold the collection to the museum in 1941.
McCormick looked through almost 300 photographs and ultimately selected 17 of them, including the Marriott print, for Shots of Speed.
“Initially, I tried to even them out between car races, horse races, and speedboat races,” she says.
But the majority of the exhibit ultimately turned out to be photographs of automobile racing, which McCormick found the most visually and historically compelling.
“This was the beginning of automobile racing. It was all on the beach,” she says. “They were recording speed using an early timing apparatus developed by the French. This was the early Daytona  at this time. They had just started racing against one another, so this was mainly speed trials.”
While examining the automobile-racing prints, McCormick spotted a notable historic figure. In one photograph, William Vanderbilt, of the prestigious Vanderbilt family, is in a gasoline automobile racing against Louis Ross, an employee of Stanley Motor Carriage Company, an early manufacturer of steam-engine cars.
“The steam car beats out all these guys in their gas automobiles, so stuff like that is interesting,” McCormick says.
Another image that caught McCormick’s attention was taken at the aforementioned race track at Belvidere Plantation. At the time, African Americans were not permitted to compete in the main horse races; they were only allowed to ride mules in side races. One of Paine’s photographs depicts the start of a mule-riding contest.
“That’s one of my all-time favorites,” McCormick says. “I found a couple more that he photographed of them.”
What remains most impressive about Paine’s work, McCormick says, is the amount of detail he managed to capture in photographs. She singles out “Action and Skills,” which depicts two young boys racing on sailboats, as an example of his expertise.
“[One of the kids] is hanging onto the boat. He’s basically out of the boat, but he’s hanging onto the side and making sure the boat doesn’t capsize,” McCormick says. “That’s a really interesting one, too. And he was out on the water with cameras actually capturing these.”