Portrait Studios of Detroit’s Polonia: The Face of Polish Immigration

Posted by Jessica Murray on October 21, 2014 in Family History Month, Research
Paul Pieronek Autoportrait

Paul Pieronek Autoportrait

By guest blogger Ceil Wendt Jensen

The once thriving Polish communities of metro Detroit — on the Eastside, Westside, and in Hamtramck — have dissipated into the suburbs; and the schools and parishes around which life in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries revolved, have shut their doors. We feel a sense of urgency to document and display this earlier way of life, while those who lived it can contribute to its legacy. Today’s older generations knew the immigrants and witnessed their assimilation into American life. The communities captured in the photos no longer exist; but families still have vibrant memories and stories of this era. This album illustrates and describes the work of major and minor photographers who serviced the community throughout the cycle of life, chronicling religious sacraments, academic pursuits, and the activities of ethnic organizations.The photos document the zenith of Polish immigration and communities, as well as an art form that reigned during the twentieth century. While the exhibit is built on the Polish experience, it transcends ethnic boundaries and touches all families, chronicling the assimilation into American life. Our partnership with the Hamtramck Historical Museum and the Clinton-Macomb Public Library is not by chance. These locations are areas that were cornerstones of Polonia or are their current residences. By collecting and displaying the exhibit in three locations, we maximize participation. It is purposeful that the Polish Mission spearheads this project.

Our history dates back to the very first Polish community in Detroit, centered around St. Albertus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the city of Detroit, having opened their doors in 1872. Located there, along with the parish and school, was our SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary; the Felician Sisters motherhouse and orphanage; and the Martin Kulwicki Funeral Home. The organizations, businesses, and practices of this early Polish settlement were soon replicated on Detroit’s East and West sides; and our archives hold photos documenting this history. The Polish Mission and the Hamtramck Historical Museum have become repositories for artifacts from this time period.

During the process of preparing for the exhibit, vestiges of this heritage which have been tucked away in boxes and closets have come to us for identification and digitization for posterity. The Polonica Americana Research Institute (PARI) will house and maintain this digital collection. It is our mission to preserve the past history of our community and make it accessible for future generations. This Portrait Studio project is a proactive approach to helping families identify and document their pictorial history.

The Poles in Detroit organized fraternal and religious organizations to support their fellow man. The Polish Mission collection holds many panoramic photos of society congresses and reunions held in support and celebration of their Polish heritage. Akin to studio photographs are the professional photos that ran in the metro Detroit papers, which were sometimes condescending, in contrast to what we see in these sophisticated images.

Charles Russell Baker, Detroit, MI

Charles Russell Baker, Detroit, MI

The first Polish immigrants to Detroit frequented the portrait studios established by photographers that included William J. Emhuff, Constantine Eisenhardt, Charles Russell Baker, and Carl Aller. Photographers Stanisław Piotrowski and Józef Sowiński, Polish immigrants from Prussia, came to Detroit in the early 1890s. Sowiński established himself in the heart of Detroit’s Polish community located at Can-field Avenue and St. Aubin Street. This positioned his studio in easy walking distance for the numerous Polish families in the area. In the following decades, other Polish immigrant photographers also developed thriving businesses not only in the heart of this same area; but, also, in the East and West side communities of the city.

The photographs were not only made for the immediate family living in Metro Detroit; but copies were exchanged with members still residing in Poland. The portrayed event, with its inscription on the back, served to chronicle the journey to become an American. Detroit studio photos have been rediscovered in Polish albums as families return to their ancestral villages in all areas of Poland. The four generation Daschke portrait, taken by Józef Sowiński circa 1902, was shared by Polish relatives in the summer of 2014. As we digitized the vintage photos, we asked patrons to label the family members portrayed. Often the portrait was unknown and we needed to use context clues to identify the studio and time period the portrait was created. This led us back to the neighborhood and the possible parish where the family lived and the event took place.

Example: Compare the valance with fringe in the upper left corner of the Daschke photo with the same feature displayed in the Pawlowski First Communion portrait. Note that the rug patterns match; and the basket displays a plaque with the year 1902. Research was undertaken using U.S. census records that show the two families lived around the corner from each other.

Polish Mission_1

Charles Daschke Family, circa 1902, Józef Sowiński, photographer, 376 Canfield Avenue in Detroit, Michigan (Diane Snellgrove Collection)

Photo Size and Card Support

Polish Mission_2

Pawlowski First Communion, 1902 (Marcia Olszewski Collection)

The earliest photos displayed in the exhibit are properly identified as Cabinet Cards. This style of photography was popular from the mid 1860s into the early 1910s. The photos by Lutge, Aller, and Eisenhardt fall into this category and measure 5 X 3 ½ inches. The name of the photographer usually is printed at the bottom of the card; and some carry decorative advertising on the back. Larger Cabinet Cards, 6 ½ X 4 ½ inches, are thin paper photos glued onto the cardboard backing. Photos by Józef Sowiński and Lityński Brothers can be identified by the large stiff backing. Composites created by Jan Mieczkowski are readily identifiable by the oval shape of the photos and the angled arrangements (pp. 39-41). He, as well as Sowiński and Paweł Pieronek, added hand drawn details to the tableau such as gymnastic equipment, flora, and fauna. Additionally, the mounts are often embossed or printed on the front with the name and address of the photographer. Studios such as Pieronek and Wojnicki Brothers offered photographic prints in a range of sizes and presented the image as a loose print in a paper folder that closed to protect the portrait; and could be unfolded to create an easel for display.

Background and Props

The background consisted of a range of surfaces from a plain wall to artistic paintings. Some of the photographers were also trained artists; and it is reflected in the subtle backdrops used in their studios. The elements of the background help us identify an unknown studio. Study the Ziawinski Brothers backdrop (p. 55) featuring a painted staircase. It centers some of the First Communion portraits, while it is positioned on the left or right of other compositions. Their studio also featured a range of props that are readily identified. Each First Communion photo features a basket with the current year displayed; and a crocheted table cloth under the candle stick and religious statue. The carpet also aids in identifying where the photo was taken. Small area rugs are featured in the late 1890s into the early 1900s (p. 49); while “wall to wall” carpeting was introduced by the 1920s forming a more unified flooring.

Anastasia Krogulski (ABT 1903)Posing Chairs and Studio Furniture

The individual wedding portraits by Ziawinski (p. 54) showcase the bridegrooms each seated in a grand carved chair. The chairs were not household furniture; but created for the studio. The posing chair, as they were called, were devices used to present the sitter in an agreeable position. Some studios like F. G. Poli (pictured right), used the chairs as a resting device. It allowed the subject’s dress and figure to be displayed. The chair from the studio of Robert Cylkowski (p. 13, center) shows not only the padded top to form an armrest; but also the adjustable elements with a knob to align the back of the chair to fit the height of the subject. Jakubowski offered an ornate pedestal for the graduate pictured on page 28.

Posing and Styling the Subject

Detroit newspapers ran stories on how to interact with the studio photographers. One Detroit Free Press article related an exchange between a woman and the photographer. The article entitled Sitting for a Picture: The Photographic Artist Has His Merry Moments was dated August 2, 1896 and read — A very plain little woman who sat for a picture was displeased with the negative. “What is wrong with it?”, asked the artist. “It does not do me justice,” she said emphatically. The photographer looked at the negative and then at the subject. “I don’t think it is justice you want at all,” he said. “It is mercy.”

Clients who wanted to avoid a similar situation were guided by the advice of Lillian Russell, the American actress and singer who offers this in a Detroit Free Press article entitled Look Pleasant Please! It was dated October 18, 1914 and states —“Look pleasant, please,” said the photographer to his “fair” sitter. Click! “It’s all over, ma’am. You may now resume your natural expression.” If your photographer says that to you, make up your mind that your negatives are going to be a sad disillusionment. Of course, if he is an up to date photographer, he will not say that to you, as it is the business of the up to date photographer to see to it that your expression is not unnatural. But, then, the best photographers cannot do this without your assistance. The truth of the matter is that you have as much to do with the success of your photographs as has the man behind the camera. Don’t blame the photographer entirely if your pictures are not good. The best photographer in the world cannot make your picture attractive without your cooperation. It pays to go to a good photographer because a good photographer can do much toward getting a natural expression and an “unposy” pose. Do not wear a hat when you have your picture taken or you’ll live to rue it. Don’t wear freak pins or ornaments in your hair. Later you’’ll regret it. The simpler the dress you are photographed in, the better you will like it a year from now. The head, neck, and shoulder photographs are far the most advisable, because they stand the test of time. Don’t go to the hairdresser and have your hair dressed in a way not typical of you. Wear your hair as simply and as naturally as you can, for the hair dress has everything to do with the picture. Unless your nose is a good shape don’t have a profile taken. Look pleasant, but don’t feel it necessary to look like a dental ad to get the pleasant effect.

As we worked with this collection of photographs, we were impressed by the craftsmanship and the artistic eye of our communities’ photographers. We think you will agree with us once you have viewed the exhibition and the images in this album.

The Exhibition

As we worked with this collection of photographs, we were impressed by the craftsmanship and the artistic eye of our communities’ photographers. We think you will agree with us once you have viewed the exhibition and the images in this album.

The campus exhibit will be open to the public throughout the month of October 3-29, 2014 — Galeria, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. each Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, & Friday. A series of complimentary lectures will be presented at 1 p.m.
October 22 — Writing Your Pictorial History
October 29 — Records Arising from Death

Polish Mission of the Orchard Lake Schools
3535 Commerce Road
Orchard Lake, MI 48324
(248) 683-0323

Hamtramck Historical Museum (November 1-23, 2014)
9525 Joseph Campau
Hamtramck, Michigan
11 a.m.-4 p.m. Friday – Sunday.

Clinton-Macomb Public Library (January 5-30, 2015)
40900 Romeo Plank Road
Clinton Township, Michigan
During regular library hours

This is a guest post by Ceil Wendt Jensen, MA, author, educator, and researcher. She is founder and co-director of the Polonica Americana Research Institute, the Polish Mission’s genealogy center in Orchard Lake, Michigan. She has conducted research throughout the United States and in Poland at libraries, civil archives, diocesan archives, and local parishes. She is a nationally known presenter, and has authored four books: Detroit’s Polonia, Detroit’s Mount Elliott Cemetery, Detroit’s Mount Olivet Cemetery; and Sto Lat: A Modern Guide to Polish Genealogy, and collaborated on Portrait Studios of Detroit’s Polonia: The Face of Polish Immigration, The History of the Polish Panorama and the DVD Our Polish Story. Ceil can be reached at cjensen@orchardlakeschools.com. and https://www.facebook.com/ThePolishMission/timeline.

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