Mennonite Village Photography exhibit features portraits taken from 1890-1940



If you’ve ever wanted to imagine yourself in the past, an exhibition of photos from around 1890 to 1940 invites you to do so, taking a selfie in front of a century-old backdrop.

This backdrop, decorated with painted curtains and frills, is clearly visible in several of the portraits made by Peter G. Hamm, who died in 1965, leaving a collection of 400 glass and film negatives. Known as the village photographer, Hamm captured early 20th-century life in his Mennonite street village of Neubergthal, now a National Historic Site.

Along with photographs by three of his contemporaries, Hamm’s work is on display in a summer exhibition titled Mennonite Village Photography at Canadian Mennonite University’s MHC Gallery.

The three dozen photos on display – some enlarged to life-size – depict various aspects of village life in these sectarian communities at a time when cameras were not household objects. These young camera enthusiasts offered their photographic services to family, friends and neighbors, also developing the images into postcard-sized photographs for a solo exhibition, said Mennonite Historic Arts Committee member Roland Sawatzky. , who organized the exhibition.

“These are villagers taking pictures for their own purposes,” said Sawatzky, curator of history at the Manitoba Museum.


MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Curator Sarah Hodges-Kolisnyk (right) and archivist Conrad Stoesz (left) worked on the exhibition of large black and white photographs depicting Mennonite village life a century ago at Galerie MHC in Canadian Mennonite University

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MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Curator Sarah Hodges-Kolisnyk (right) and archivist Conrad Stoesz (left) worked on the exhibition of large black and white photographs depicting Mennonite village life a century ago at MHC Gallery from Canadian Mennonite University

Originally intended to coincide with the publication in 2020 of a book containing 91 photographs by the same photographers, the Winnipeg exhibition was postponed for two years due to restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19. The photos were briefly exhibited in 2020 at Altona’s Gallery in the Park.

Chosen from hundreds of images, the photographs paint a picture of the life, death, agricultural practices and recreation of Mennonite villages on both sides of the Red River in the early 20th century.

“In terms of Manitoba history, this is a really good look at a sectarian group at a time of great change,” Sawatzky said, referring to expanding agricultural markets, increased mobility and the adoption of technology.




<p>MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>The exhibit was originally scheduled to coincide with the 2020 publication of the book Mennonite Village Photography, featuring 91 photographs by the same photographers.</p>
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<p>MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>The exhibit was originally scheduled to coincide with the 2020 publication of the book Mennonite Village Photography, featuring 91 photographs by the same photographers.</p>
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<p>The photographers featured were mostly single, younger men with a few extra dollars to spend on camera and developing gear, said Conrad Stoesz of Mennonite Heritage Archives and a member of the Mennonite Historic Arts Committee.  They had to deal with Mennonite leaders disapproving of their hobby, using the argument that posing for pictures could lead to excessive pride.			</p>
<p>“It’s an ongoing problem,” Stoesz said of the argument against making engraved images, still followed by some conservative Mennonite groups.			</p>
<p>“This technology, this hobby is not trivial.”			</p>
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<p>MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>Some of the equipment used by the photographers in the exhibit as well as large black and white photographs depicting life in a Mennonite village a century ago.</p>
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<p>MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>Some of the equipment used by the photographers in the exhibit as well as large black and white photographs depicting Mennonite village life a century ago.</p>
</figcaption></figure>
<p>As recently as 2018, a conservative Mennonite leader wrote about the prevalence of taking selfie photos with smartphones, saying it was inappropriate.			</p>
<p>“How could this edify the Christian?  wondered Conrad Barkman of Swansea, Sask.  in the February 4, 2018 issue of <em>messenger of truth</em>a bi-weekly publication of Church of God, Mennonite.			</p>
<p>The exhibition biographies highlight how photographer Johann E. Funk of Schoenwiese was reprimanded by his minister for taking pictures, and later reused some of the 13×18 cm negatives as windows in his chicken coop.  Heinrich D. Fast of Gruenfeld was encouraged by his church to give up photography when he married in 1918 and sold his camera to his brother Jake.  Peter Hamm’s negatives were stored in a barn for decades, only to be rediscovered in the 1980s and 1990s. Images left behind by Peter H. Klippenstein of Altbergthal were distributed to family members and later collected and donated at the Mennonite Heritage Archives.			</p>
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<p>MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>In front of one of the original backdrops used at the time, curator Sarah Hodges-Kolisnyk (right) and archivist Conrad Stoesz test out some of the costume elements in the selfie studio.  </p>
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<p>MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>In front of one of the original sets used at the time, curator Sarah Hodges-Kolisnyk (right) and archivist Conrad Stoesz test out some costume elements in the selfie studio. </p>
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<p>“We’re just lucky that (these) survived and we don’t know how much we lost,” Sawatzky said of the images collected as the basis for the exhibit.			</p>
<p>Despite all the odds, some footage has been preserved, offering a glimpse into the past of grieving families gathering around an open coffin of a loved one, restless (and blurry) children sitting on their knees as their parents watch the camera stoically.  as people out and about, cartwheeling or posing with their bikes, cars or sleds.			</p>
<p>“I think we often think of the past in black and white terms and in a simplistic way,” Stoesz said of the variety of portraits and candid shots chosen for the exhibit.			</p>
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<p>MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>Archivist Conrad Stoesz with some of the extra props from the photographers whose work is in exhibiting large black and white photographs of village life.</p>
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<figcaption>
<p>MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>Archivist Conrad Stoesz with some of the extra props from the photographers whose work is in the exhibit of large black and white photographs of village life.</p>
</figcaption></figure>
<p>“The past was not static and boring, but full of pain, loss and joy.”			</p>
<p>Several of the portraits also show the view of the eye behind the camera.  In the absence of a storefront studio, these amateurs took their backdrops with them, or improvised with blankets and tablecloths.  Although the photographers cropped the alien backgrounds of doors, windows, and wall decorations when printing the photos, Stoesz and other committee members decided to print the entire image to tell a different story. .			</p>
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The move adds interest to the exhibit, providing an unexpected behind-the-scenes perspective as people posed in their Sunday best, said Sarah Hodges-Kolisnyk, photo historian and newly appointed director of MHC Gallery.




<p>MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>A large format negative is placed on a light table in the exhibition.  “In terms of Manitoba history, this is a really good look at a sectarian group at a time of great change,” says Roland Sawatzky.</p>
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<figcaption>
<p>MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>A large format negative is placed on a light table in the exhibition.  “In terms of Manitoba history, this is a really good look at a sectarian group at a time of great change,” says Roland Sawatzky.</p>
</figcaption></figure>
<p>“You can see the photographer’s hand and you see life happening around the makeshift studio,” she said.			</p>
<p>The photographs also depict the tension between old ways and new innovations, Sawatzky said.  As photography became more and more accessible, these young photographers took advantage of the growing demand for portraits and, along the way, depicted the changes taking place in their villages.			</p>
<p>“These teenagers are taking that and saying they want to be part of the modern world, but they’re also documenting the traditional world,” Sawatzky said.			</p>
<p>The exhibition takes place at the MHC Gallery, 600 Shaftesbury Blvd.  until Sept. 10. Admission by donation.  Hours of operation are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Saturday.			</p>
<p>brenda@suderman.com			</p>
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Brenda Suderman

Brenda Suderman
faith reporter

Brenda Suderman has been a Saturday newspaper columnist since 2000, first writing about family entertainment and faith and religion since 2006.

Tracey L. Sweeney