Paul Rheingold’s Collector’s Eye for Capturing the Everyday
By Annie Sollinger, Visual Archivist
When Paul Rheingold first began collecting photographs as historical artifacts, he focused on portraits. His vast and varied assemblage, now at UMass Amherst Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives, includes thousands of photographs of people: schoolchildren, families, groups of workers, and members of organizations, some identified and others mysterious.
Over the course of almost four decades, Rheingold amassed more than 55,000 images, buying chiefly from antiques dealers. Most of the photographs are mounted on boards; they date from 1860, when photography was still quite new, to the emergence of color photography in 1930. The photographers are nearly all anonymous, with a mix of amateurs and professionals. The genre of amateur or snapshot photography, distinct from fine-art photography, is commonly called vernacular photography.
Photo: Gelatin silver print, ca. 1900, of the infamous Cherrelyn horse car of Englewood, Colorado, which stopped running in 1910.
Rheingold, a practicing lawyer since 1958, expanded his collecting practices over time to include whatever caught his interest. Photographs of law office interiors are of professional relevance, while manipulated photographs—such as a corn cob with wheels—have their own charm. “If this collection of pictures, or any collection, was given to a thousand people who were asked to place them into categories, no two people would come up with the same topics and divisions,” says Rheingold of his unique cataloguing style. He organized the photos into twenty-two broad groups, with 3,600 subcategories, some of which hold just one photo while others contain dozens. When a category grew too large, Rheingold would examine its contents and subdivide them into even smaller discrete categories. For example, the broad category of “Working” is divided into two subcategories: “Factories, construction sites, and logging” and “Sales and offices.” It is striking that Rheingold foregrounded the human functions of work over the locations themselves.
Photo: Gelatin silver print, unidentified location, ca. 1920s.
The images are mostly in the silver gelatin print format, which was the most common and accessible black-and-white process of the 20th century. Some images are albumen prints, an earlier process that was popular from the 1860s until about 1895. While silver gelatin photographs are made using a suspension of light-sensitive silver particles in gelatin, the albumen emulsion is made from egg whites. Albumen photographs are typically mounted on board because the paper is very thin.
Photo: Gelatin silver print, ca. 1900.
Mounted photographs present unique challenges for archivists. Ranging in shape and size, most were made cheaply for regular consumers, with little consideration for long-term preservation. The cardboard or paperboard backings are vulnerable to decay; they age differently from photographic paper, so it is not unusual for mounted photos to warp or crack. Many collecting institutions are reluctant to acquire such fragile collections. Rheingold himself is a rarity for embracing the idiosyncrasies of this broad category of photograph; he understood the value in preserving a popular medium.
Photo: gelatin POP (printing-out-paper) print taken between 1890-1920 is likely a combination print which uses two or more negatives to create, in this case, a whimsical result.
For researchers, the collection is a treasure trove that rewards careful attention with a rich visual experience. The collector’s categories provide accessible entry points, but most individual photographs are unlabeled and unattributed. Magnified views can help determine precise format and technique and thus the likely date of creation. Even with little external information, a viewer can derive rich information from what is pictured—styles of costume, transportation, buildings, or landscape—and how they capture the history of early photography in the United States.
Photo: Gelatin silver print, Greenwich, Mass.; the costume and wicker baby pram suggest a date in the late 19th or early 20th century. Research suggests that the photographer, C. S. Simons, may have been a woman.
The founder of the firm Rheingold, Giuffra, Ruffo, and Plotkin LLP, attorney Paul Rheingold is a graduate of Oberlin College and Harvard Law School. In practice since 1958, he is known for taking a leadership role in mass tort litigation and is a member of the bars in New York, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C. Rheingold recently published Take Home a Souvenir: The Early Photographers of Lake Sunapee, available from the Sunapee Historical Society. He has also published on the history of Rye, New York, as told through his collection of photographs and postcards. He chose Special Collections and University Archives as the repository for his collection in large part because of the late head of special collections Rob Cox’s willingness to accept the collection in its entirety—along with its complex organizational scheme.
Photo: Paul and Joyce Rheingold at the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia, April 2019.
Photo: Albumen print of girls, possibly in uniforms, late 19th century
Top photo: Albumen print of studio portrait of couple posed in front of picture of Niagara Falls.