Lance and Evelyn Massengill
In 2008, Maxine Payne, an Arkansas-based artist, self-published a book of photographs titled Making Pictures: Three For A Dime. She catalogued the work of the Massengill family who worked from 1937 to 1941 as itinerant photographers in rural Arkansas documenting farmers, young couples, babies, and anyone else who had a few minutes and an extra dime to spend. The Massengills’ photos provided candid snapshots of the rural South just before the Second World War. Through her efforts, Maxine Payne has given new life to these old photographs by coordinating exhibitions and projects, including a forthcoming book by the Atlanta-based publisher Dust-to-Digital and a collaboration with Alabama Chanin on our new collection. We asked Maxine to describe her connection to the Massengill family and her involvement with Three For A Dime:
Making Pictures by Maxine Payne
In 2003, both of my grandparents, who raised me in rural Arkansas, passed away within months of each other.A woman named Sondra Massengill-McKelvey attended both of their funerals, bringing her mother, known as Aunt Evelyn. When I saw her at my grandpa’s funeral, Sondra said she had photographs of my mother and grandparents that she wanted to share with me. It was on the first of many trips to see Sondra at her home in Clarksville, Arkansas, when I first saw the Massengill family photographs.
The Massengills were a family of entrepreneurs and inventors. With no formal training, they learned how to build portable studios and homes, how to construct a camera, how to light and pose the subject, process the film and make prints so that the client could purchase their image very quickly. They were also somehow able to get darkroom supplies in the 1930s in rural Arkansas.
The Massengill Photo Trailer
The Massengill men built three portable photography studios on old truck frames. They hauled them behind cars that were only partly dependable, on roads that were less so. The women also went along: They helped with the business, they did the washing and the cooking, and they had the babies. These things were done year-round. They worked through the hot, Arkansas summers with no air conditioning and in the cold winters, with little or no heat. The family would find a town that they thought would present them with customers, seek out electricity, put up their advertisement, and begin the task of taking photos.They slept in their workplace, with pungent photo chemicals and no bathroom.
From what I can gather, there were displays of photographs on a kind of bulletin board outside the trailer, for folks to look at and get some idea of what they could purchase. The client would come into the trailer and sit down on a stool with a backdrop behind it and two bright lights, just a few feet from the subject. The person working the camera took three shots and the positive paper film was cut and processed immediately, as the darkroom was housed in the same space as the “studio”. The whole enterprise was much like the photo booth technology that was popular at that time. Most likely they were using a super speed direct positive paper, which eliminated the need for negatives (none have been found) and allowed for a fast drying time. This would also account for the fact that the images are consistently backwards. If the client wanted their images to be hand tinted, they had to return the next day to pick them up and they were charged an extra nickel. Both the Massengill women and men worked the camera and did the processing, but the women hand tinted the photographs, and they did it with tenderness and attention to detail. The Massengills also made photo enlargements, by request. These were shot from the small images and printed on the same type of paper.
It is difficult to fathom how many photographs were made during these years. Many pictures were sold, but the unsold prints were probably thrown away, and many may have been lost through the years.
-Contributed by Phillip March Jones
Maxine Payne’s efforts to preserve and understand the history of the Massengill family and those they photographed gives voice to many invisible, hardworking American families. The Massengill photographs give us some insight on what it was like to be a working family in the ‘30s and ‘40s and reveal much about both the photographers and their subjects. These photos are proof that art knows no social or economic status and that beauty can be found any day, anywhere.
Coincidentally, many of the same people were photographed by Mike Disfarmer—another Alabama Chanin hero—in Heber Springs, Arkansas in his Main Street studio, not in a roving trailer.
-All photos courtesy of Maxine Payne.