August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
It seemed to me paradise then,” said Mrs. Alden Van Campen, “permanent and timeless.” Mrs. Van Campen, a surviving niece, was speaking of the bright and languid life of the Drakes of Corning, New York. And indeed that family enjoyed the crest of an era when moderate wealth brought with it an extraordinary amount of security, ease, and even the general approval of those not wealthy. It did not last. Mr. Drake was caught in the recession of 1913, and everything had to be sold— the bank stock, the big Corning house, Drake Point and all its furnishings. A few years later the rest of the era followed the Drakes, its people a bit myopic from a long age of placid certainties and lured by the jaunty, cozening songs of the Great War. That war, of course, changed everything, and America has ever since been in exile from the sunny, faintly preposterous, most attractive days that preceded it. So with the Drake girls; Dort had to give cello lessons, and Madge worked as a secretary in the Corning Glass Works. Drake Point became a small amusement park that featured a roller-skating rink, a tavern, monkeys, and an obliging bear that drank soda pop. But at the time these pictures were taken, all this was distant, and the Drakes had no inkling that the future would be anything but the sum of pleasant past experiences. Nevertheless there is a curious plangent quality about these snapshots. Isabel Drake took them when her subjects’ backs were turned. That was a simple but highly evocative device, for the people in the pictures had no chance to assume the rigid poses and tight halfsmiles most folks take on under the intangible beam of the camera lens. As a consequence there is a special intimacy in the mood and character of these photographs, and the line of a back or the curve of a neck can be more immediate to us than a hundred well-composed smiles. And there is an added quality; the years that divide us from the Drakes seem to have charged these young matrons and pensive children with a prescience of change and loss that they certainly did not have. They have turned their backs on us and are studying vanished things, and we see the Drakes—and their era with them—moving away from us forever.