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A Town That Looked Just So

June 2024
3min read

Of the thousands of negatives Marie Kendall took in Norfolk, Connecticut, she saved only a few, but enough to be a fitting memorial to a region and an era

For most of the inhabitants of the small village of Norfolk in northwestern Connecticut, the blizzard of March 1888 was a disastrous occurrence. For Marie Kendall, a photographer who lived in the town, it was a chance to take uncommonly dramatic pictures. During the three days of the storm, she hauled her clumsy box camera, tripod, and glass plates from one end of the village to the other, recording the wild and frigid scene.

Kendall photographed the stranded railroad train and the teams of workers struggling to shovel the tracks, and she was there to record the arrival of the first locomotive when it finally got through. She climbed the church steeple for bird’s-eye views, and she got a picture of a building buried under snow with only its flagpole showing. Her photographs of bowler-topped heads barely visible above white drifts are almost surrealist to a modern eye.

Marie Kendall’s relationship with Norfolk began when her physician husband, John C. Kendall, moved his practice there in 1884. The two had met in New York City’s Bellevue Hospital, where Marie Hartig, the French-born daughter of Franco-Prussian War refugees, was one of the first students to attend the newly founded nursing school. Dr. Kendall was then finishing his medical residency. The couple became engaged before her graduation from Bellevue, and she was promptly dismissed by the school. Determined to become a nurse, she completed her training at nearby Charity Hospital.

Marie shocked her parents by rejecting the customary church wedding, marrying Kendall in a civil ceremony in 1878 instead. Furthermore, she refused a wedding ring because she felt it was a symbol of women’s enslavement. A watch would be more suitable, she said. But she was not a consistent rebel: she signed all her photographs “Mrs. J. C. Kendall.”

The Connecticut village the Kendalls moved to was surrounded by uninhabited forests and clear lakes. Norfolk’s high altitude in the remote northwest corner of the state made it a summer haven for rich industrialists from Hartford and New Haven. The railroad deposited visitors directly on the town green, and fashionable vacationers soon established summer residences there, hiring architects as eminent as Stanford White to design their houses.

It was a time when most prosperous families kept albums of photographs in their drawing rooms, and though there were few female photographers in America in the 1880s, Marie Kendall apparently saw the profession as a way to supplement her husband’s small income. To raise money to buy her first camera, Kendall knitted and sewed garments to sell, using skills she had been taught as a child in Europe.

Because she was neither a native nor a summer resident, Kendall’s perspective as an outsider in Norfolk may have enhanced her appreciation of the town. After teaching herself to use her new camera and setting up a darkroom, she threw herself into the business of making portraits, souvenir albums, and postcards. Despite unwieldy equipment, which confined most photographers to their studios, Kendall explored every aspect of her village and the surrounding countryside. She climbed high trails to find where the laurel bloomed. When a picture required it, she planted her tripod and stood in the middle of Norfolk’s Blackberry River until she got her shot.

Kendall catered to Norfolk’s affluent summer population, but the subjects of some of her most memorable photographs were farm families and the children of townspeople. But her seemingly fresh, spontaneous vision of local residents and rustic scenes is always tempered by a perfectionist’s sense of how they should look. There are no barefoot country children in her photograph of Norfolk’s Temperance Band. Instead we see more than a hundred well-scrubbed boys and girls turned out in their Sunday best. The fact that the photographer succeeded in bringing order to such a group and persuading its members to hold still for a long exposure attests to her personal force.

The Connecticut Western Railroad, which played an important role in the development of Norfolk and the nearby Berkshires, was also important to Kendall’s work. It used her photographs in its advertising and issued an unlimited pass for Kendall and the two boys enlisted to carry her gear.

By the 1890s Kendall had begun to win national recognition. Her striking image of a speeding train won a medal in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago; in 1904 her work received further exposure in St. Louis at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition photographic competition.

Marie Kendall’s professional life spanned more than fifty years, and her perfectionism never faltered. Instead of silver, she insisted on the more permanent—and costly—platinum-coated paper for her prints. Of the more than thirty thousand negatives she made during her lifetime, only a few survive. She died in 1943, and in her last years she sold most of the negatives for one cent apiece, undoubtedly to people who wanted the glass. Those that are now in the Norfolk Historical Society’s archives—some of which are published here for the first time—are the only images Marie Kendall judged worthy of posterity.

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