Recalling a 'Town on the Plains'

Junction City photos provide glimpse of the past

A rare photo collection is opening doors to the past with its images of life in 19th-century Kansas.

The J.J. Pennell Collection has been based in the Kansas Collection at Spencer Research Library since 1954, when a Pennell family member donated the photos to the institution. They've been loaned out to scholars, and even had a starring role in the opening credits of the TV series "Cheers," but now a new book is presenting the images of one of the Old West's foremost photographers.

In "Our Town on the Plains: J.J. Pennell's Photographs of Junction City, Kansas, 1893-1922," readers can get a real taste of what life was like in the burgeoning town at the turn of the century, while also learning what elevated Pennell's work above other studio photographers of the day.

"He was good at what he did, he took care in his photographs and he had a good eye," says John Pultz, curator of photography for the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art. Pultz came on at the end of the publication project to write the book's foreward. His approach is to convey a sense of Pennell's style and skill as a photographer. Author James R. Shortridge, KU professor of geography, uses the photos and his accompanying text to show the development of a rural town during late-19th century.

"He (Shortridge) helps one understand the history and development, the classes and culture, and the influence of Fort Riley on Junction City," Pultz says. "As an art and photography historian, I'm interested in the photographer's life and art."

The end result is a polished work that uses the pictures to tell a story about the photographer and the town he was obsessed with. It propels the notion that life was simpler back then, while also being in a constant motion of change.

Photos show residents posing in automobiles and horse-drawn carriages. New stores with fresh products dot the town. The opening of the courthouse and power plant are captured, along with the buildings and activities of nearby Fort Riley.

What set Pennell apart from his contemporaries was his roving spirit. He moved freely in business and social settings, indoor and outdoor milieus, capturing both poised portraits and more spontaneous images of swimming parties and parades. His dexterity with his camera helped capture the town's evolution on every level.

"He went out and did so much outside of the studio, and that really helped to capture the buildings, houses and business. It created a wide range of images," Pultz says.

The photographer also operated indoors in traditional portraiture of domestic and commercial scenes. Pennell won national awards for his work, and studied other photographers to help develop his own craft. Pennell's photos are considered a valuable aid for understanding the lifestyles of last century's early settlers.

"The book provides publicity to display the richness of the Pennell collection," Pultz says. "It gets the word out to researchers about what's in the collection."


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