August/september 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 5
The Forgotten Photographs of Nancy Ford Cones
In 1905 the Eastman Kodak Company held a photographic competition that drew twenty-eight thousand entries. The first prize went to a young photographer named Edward Steichen; the third-prize winner was Alfred Stieglitz. Second prize went to a young farmwife from Loveland, Ohio. The name of Nancy Ford Cones is not now commonly known even to the most ardent devotees of photography—an obscurity thoroughly undeserved, as the photographs in this portfolio demonstrate. Born in Milan, Ohio, in 1869, she became interested in photography in her twenties. In 1897 she met and later married a fellow photographer named James Cones, and in 1905 the couple moved to a twenty-five-acre farm outside Loveland. From then until his death in 1939, James printed all his wife’s negatives, making the two possibly the first husband-and-wife team in the history of American photography. While she did photograph such celebrated figures as President William Howard Taft, most of her work documented the life of friends and relatives on the Cones’ family farm, “Roads Inn.” Eastman Kodak, Bausch & Lomb, and other camera manufacturers snapped up her rural scenes for major advertising campaigns; many of her photographs also appeared on the covers of such magazines as Country Life in America and Woman’s Home Companion . Throughout her working life she remained true to the place she knew best. “It is a dead sure thing,” she once wrote, “that if you cannot make pictures in and around home, it is positively hopeless to go abroad to find them.”
Nancy Ford Cones died in 1962, her work all but forgotten. But in 1977, in the farmhouse where she had spent most of her ninety-three years, Walt Burton, a Cincinnati art dealer, discovered and purchased her legacy of four thousand prints and fifteen thousand glass-plate negatives. To the best of our knowledge, the photographs shown here have never been published before. At once precise and soft with summer light, they recall the steady toil and small pleasures of farm life three-quarters of a century ago.