The Taft Museum of Art’s Craft and Camera: The Art of Nancy Ford Cones is out to establish that the Loveland-based photographer’s career in the early decades of the 20th century deserves to be remembered. That’s why the Taft chose Cones as the subject of its presentation for this year’s regional FotoFocus Biennial of photography and lens-based art. The show is on display through January 15, 2023.
Facing viewers in the first room of the gallery is an approximately 120-year-old camera on a tripod; the lighting gives its wooden surface a gold-like shine. On the wall nearby is an enlarged photo of Cones herself, carefully leaning over a similar camera as if to take a picture. (She owned both of them.)
Cones used that Korona Home Portrait Camera for her studio practice, one important component of a career that flourished for close to 40 years in Loveland. She was born in Milan, Ohio, in 1869 and moved with husband James in 1907 to their Loveland farm, where she died in 1962. She stopped her photography after James’s death in 1939. He was a close collaborator who was masterful with the printing of the images she captured on glass plate and film negatives. He sometimes added imaginative elements during the printing and developing stage or even added color to her images. He also could use multiple printing processes well—this show has gelatin silver prints, gum bichromate prints, tissue prints, and more.
Cones is still well respected in Loveland, where her camera is on display along with many of the show’s approximately 85 photographs and other material at the Loveland Museum Center. And she is collected; photographs in the show also come from the Cincinnati Art Museum, Dayton Art Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and private sources. But in the greater world of contemporary photography, she needs to be rediscovered.
“The Taft exhibition is the first museum-scale retrospective of Nancy Ford Cones,” says Pepper Stetler, the show’s curator and an associate professor of art and architecture history at Miami University. “She was an internationally recognized photographer during her lifetime, especially in the 1910s and ’20s, but never received the attention she deserves in the history of photography.”
Ann Glasscock, the Taft’s associate curator, agrees with Stetler’s assessment. “Cones created thousands of photographs all through her life but really is not well known,” says Glasscock. “So it was important that we produced this exhibition to bring acknowledgment to a woman who just happened to be local and to make her presence better known throughout the community.”
The show proves just how well-regarded Cones once was. In 1905, her “Threading the Needle or Helping Grandmother Sew,” a gelatin silver print of a young girl with her grandma, took the $100 second-place prize in a Kodak competition. First place went to Edward Steichen, third to Alfred Stieglitz. A Dayton Art Institute print of the image is in this show.
The life Nancy and James Cones led seems idyllic in some of the photographs. One of the exhibit’s absolute standouts is a 1912 gelatin silver print called “Picnic Fun on the Little Miami River,” in which neighbors join her family for some reverie. Was it carefully staged to achieve its pictorial balance and clarity, or a moment of pleasurable abandon caught on the fly? It’s a photo of happiness, whatever the circumstances of its making.
Throughout the exhibit, one can see the variety and beauty of Cones’s work. But there’s another element present, too—a chronicling of Cincinnati’s growth and cultural development in the 1920s. Among the photographs is one that isn’t directly attributed to Cones but that she made happen; it provides insight into how photography became the artistic force it is today. In 1923, the Coneses invited members of the Camera Club of Cincinnati to their Loveland family farm, and they came with photography equipment, fiddles, and accordions and posed for the camera, with Nancy and James in the picture. He had the camera on a tripod.
That’s maybe a small event in Cincinnati’s history, although a fascinating photograph, when compared to the creation of the planned suburban community of Mariemont. But she was there, too, in 1926, after being commissioned by philanthropist Mary Emery to chronicle the town’s creation. Cones’s Mariemont project fills a section of this show. (Continuing its award-winning “More to the Story” wall-text program, the Taft Museum points out that Mariemont was built strictly for white residents.)
Cones’s photographs also reveal the work of someone who knew what the camera could accomplish with creative vision and confidence. Glasscock greatly admires “Mrs. Lawrence Smith and Her Baby” from 1932. “It’s this lovely photograph of a mother and her child,” she says. “Nancy would go to homes and take their family photograph. In this work, the lighting is incredible—there’s a wonderful natural light coming through the back window, which she does a great job of capturing. She clearly has a good eye.”
Nancy’s collaboration with James leads to the charming and perhaps most memorable section of the exhibition, which is given over to mythological and fairytale-inspired work for which daughter Margaret and teenage friends posed in the woods. Here is the mysterious “Spirit in the Wood,” a 1920 multiple green gum bichromate print of Margaret deep in the woods, hand extended to gently support a butterfly’s wings. It portrays a natural bond between her and this enchanting insect, so it’s a surprise to learn that James added in the butterfly.
Stetler sees the couple’s contentment on their rural farm as maybe one reason their body of work isn’t often acknowledged as a milestone of American photography. “She never wanted to move to New York and have a professional career,” she says. “That’s a reason I think she never made it into the history of photography. But that says nothing about the quality of her work or the interest in her photography during her lifetime. She and her husband were masters at these complex processes of photographing and printing that other photographers, even more famous ones, really struggled with and gave up on.”