Through the Camera's Eye:
Portraits from the Stewart Photographic Collection
Through May 2002.
Do you remember the first time you had your picture taken at a portrait studio - the bright lights, the large camera equipment, having to sit very still? Chances are if you are a longtime resident of Canandaigua or the near vicinity, you, your parents, your grandparents or even your great-grandparents had their pictures taken by Peggy or Helen Stewart.
The Stewart sisters practiced portrait photography at their studio in Canandaigua for over 75 years, from 1908 to 1984. Their visually compelling and skillfully executed photographs of people, particularly of children, won them national and international acclaim. This exhibit will explore their lives and photographic artwork through a selection of photographs from the OCHS collection. The photos will depict children, families, individuals, brides and wedding parties, military service men and women, and school and business groups. Some unidentified photos will be displayed with hopes that visitors will be able to identify them.
Peggy and Helen Stewart were part of a large, close-knit family that originally came from Toronto, Canada to Canandaigua in about 1902 when their father took a job at the Lisk Manufacturing Company. All of the children (five girls and one boy) were encouraged to pursue some profession. Unlike many women in the early twentieth century, Peggy and Helen Stewart chose to make photography their profession. In 1908, Peggy purchased the photography studio from Canandaiguan John Dick, and with her sister working in photo development, launched a career as a studio photographer.
Peggy Stewart's fame as a photographer blossomed in the 1920s and 1930s. She received a bronze medal for a portrait entitled "A Child Study" at the Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester in 1927. In 1929, six portrait studies of local children hung at the Polish National Exhibition of Art. By 1932, Peggy was named "Child Photographer in America". During her lifetime, Peggy received over 100 awards from national and international photographic competitions and conventions.
Peggy was most well known for her striking photographs of children. With her engaging personality, she gained the confidence of young children and put adolescents at ease in front of the camera. She often gave children items such as pennies, a wristwatch or special toys to play with or hats to wear to add interest to the portrait. Peggy also enjoyed photographing adults, or as the Stewart Studio newspaper ads read "interesting people".
In 1950, forty-two years after opening the Stewart Studio on South Main Street, Peggy and Helen closed their business and moved it to their residence on Fort Hill Ave. Demand for studio portraits had decreased as amateur photography became more popular and accessible to the average person. Peggy also felt the need to reduce the time she spent on photography as she neared retirement. They remodeled part of back of their home to accommodate the new studio and darkroom. Peggy continued taking photos until her death in 1967.
During most of her career in the photography business, Helen Stewart worked behind the scenes developing negatives, producing prints, and adding artistic touches to the photographs. However, following her sister's death, Helen began her second career as a portrait photographer at the age of 70. She worked only with black and white film and used only their old wooden studio camera. Her skill as a photographer drew many area residents to her studio to have their pictures taken. She enjoyed photographing people of all ages and, like her sister, sometimes had her subjects wear unusual coats, hats or other costumes to make the resulting picture more unique. She continued to work in the studio at her Fort Hill Ave. home until her death in 1984.
Peggy and Helen Stewart left a remarkable legacy of photographic work and a strong impression on the community of Canandaigua. Part of the Stewart sister's prolific output of photographs is now housed in the Historical Society's photographic archives. The archives hold over 13,500 film negatives and over 600 prints made by the Stewart Studio. This collection is probably a small portion of what they produced in their lifetimes.
This exhibit of photographs by Peggy and Helen Stewart is but a small sampling of their work. It is hoped that you will return home to re-examine your family pictures and be reminded of your own history. Perhaps you will even find a photograph of your own by Peggy or Helen Stewart.