A Mid-Century Chronicle of Mount Auburn: The Photographs of Arthur Cushman Haskell

September 28, 2012

 

For 25 years, from 1937 to 1962, Mount Auburn Cemetery was beautifully chronicled through the eyes of photographer Arthur Cushman Haskell. The noted New England architectural photographer created an extensive body of photographs of Mount Auburn. A little known treasure, the collection resides in Mount Auburn’s Historical Collections Department.

Born in 1890 in Salem, Massachusetts, Haskell made the transition from high school student to draftsman, working for various Boston architectural firms over a ten-year period. As he became familiar with the practices of other architectural photographers, he experimented with the camera on his own. In the late 1920s Haskell started to take photographs for many of the leading architectural firms of the day including Ralph Adams Cram; Perry, Shaw & Hepburn; and Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott.1 In the 1930s, he photographed sites in New England for the Works Progress Administration’s Historic American Buildings Survey and later took pictures for historical and preservation societies.

 

 

In the late 1930s Mount Auburn Cemetery President Oakes I. Ames commissioned Haskell to photograph the Cemetery’s buildings, monuments, and grounds. Haskell took hundreds of shots of the Cemetery’s well-known sites as well as extensive views of Mount Auburn in all seasons. Starting in 1937 the photographer’s images were used to illustrate Mount Auburn’s Annual Reports as well as many other Cemetery publications. His relationship with Mount Auburn proved a productive and happy one. Near the end of his tenure, Haskell wrote to Ames, “I have always greatly enjoyed working at the Cemetery and also the very cordial relations with your office. I can not imagine a nicer set of working conditions.”2

Haskell used an 8×10 inch view camera and printed black-and-white silver gelatin prints in a darkroom he constructed himself. The Cemetery’s Historical Collections house the collection of Haskell’s original prints, elegant presentation albums, and negatives. The pictures reveal Haskell’s masterful printing techniques and use of high-quality papers, with which he could create a stunning range of tones and textures. In the 1990s Mount Auburn Cemetery received a grant to stabilize and preserve the collection. Duplicates were made of the negatives, and copy prints were created from the original negatives. The entire collection of negatives and prints (originals and copies) is stored in climate-controlled conditions.

Haskell conveyed the richness of Mount Auburn’s cultural landscape with thoughtful depictions of the Cemetery’s monuments juxtaposed within the natural setting. People, cars, or any objects dating the pictures are noticeably absent from his timeless scenes. The photographer illustrated the Cemetery’s natural beauty through close-ups of blossoms and trees, incorporated striking cloud formations into his scenes, and experimented with the play of light and shadow on the memorials. An excellent architectural photographer, Haskell captured with breathtaking detail the exquisite features of the Cemetery’s chapels, monuments, and gravesites. He preferred the clarity of the morning light. “I have always found that the best pictures [at Mount Auburn] were obtained in the early morning, from seven to nine,” he explained.3

Renowned architectural historian Abbott Lowell Cummings noted that Haskell was “continually praised for a particular talent in the manipulation of light and shadow in which he never used flash or flood lighting, his work possessed the rare quality of combining in thoroughly satisfying proportions a straightforward artistry, technical perfection, and documentary scholarship.”4 These characteristics are clearly evident in Haskell’s crystal clear, beautifully composed images — an exceptionally sensitive portrait of the Cemetery that survives as the only existing comprehensive photographic record of Mount Auburn in the mid-20th century.

 

by Melissa Banta, Historical Collections Consultant
1Other firms Haskell worked for included Frohman, Robb & Little; McGinnis & Walsh; Nelson W. Aldrich; David J. Abrahams & Associates; and Royal Barry Wills.

2Arthur C. Haskell to Oakes I. Ames, September 12, 1962. Historical Collections Department, Mount Auburn Cemetery.

3Ibid.

4Abbott Lowell Cummings, “Arthur Cushman Haskell, New England Architectural Photographer,” Old Time New England, v. 59, no. 214, Fall 1968, p. 56.

About the Author: Melissa Banta

Consulting Curator, Historical Collections

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