Cunningham Brothers Collection

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Cunningham Brothers Collection

Like many practitioners of folk photography, Frank and Bert Cunningham have become posthumous documentarians of a vanished world.

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Like many practitioners of folk photography, Frank and Bert Cunningham have become posthumous documentarians of a vanished world. They were born a few years apart shortly after the Civil War ended [1865] in the village of Washington, Maine, part of the Midcoast area. Midcoast Maine consists mostly of small towns and villages, which at this time were farming communities, sparsely served by passenger rail and connected by dirt roads. The people they live among were both self-reliant and interdependent. The bucolic appeal of the area, then as now, drew city folk to summer here and helped boost the rural economy through tourism.

Although Bert moved on to vocations other than photography after the death of his wife Mabel (whose sister Ellen married Frank), the brothers formed a creative and business partnership for a while around the turn of the century, traversing a familiar sweep of a few hundred miles of countryside by horse and buggy to capture whatever scenes of daily life—work, home, celebration, recreation—appealed to their customers. Their glass plates, which sometimes began as unique, commissioned images, were often used subsequently to print postcards and cabinet cards for a wider market. At this time, photography remained a fairly technical skill; photographs were still enticing and special objects to most people.

Frank maintained a studio in Washington village following the end of their working relationship, and Bert continued to make some photographs of personal interest to him. Like most collections of historic images created for commercial purposes, many of the scenes these men recorded are not described well or at all, but their preserved work continues to have value nonetheless, carrying forward a glimpse of a singular time and place.

The Cunningham’s glass plate negatives were dispersed after they passed. Many ended up in the hands of collectors and antique dealers. Others were donated to various historical societies in Knox and Waldo Counties. Their work was the subject of “Midcoast Maine: The Cunningham Collection” by Joseph W. and Jeremy T. Dieffenbacher. PMM has nearly 300 of their glass plate negatives which they obtained through donations from Dan Newman, Isabel Morse Maresh and John & Patty Vierra. We have another 300+ personal negatives taken by Robert Cunningham which were donated by his grandson, Robert W. Cunningham. You can explore their work Here.

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Robert Cunningham

Frank Cunningham

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