The Dayton Art Institute is showcasing Dayton history through photographs.
The exhibition now on display features a selection of photographs by renowned Daytonian and photojournalist William Preston Mayfield, who documented Dayton’s life in the early 20th century.
Whether you’re a Dayton native or currently call the Dayton area home, it’s fascinating to see our city as it looked in times gone by.
There was no better chronicler of Dayton’s visual history than Mayfield, who spent six decades photographing the city — its citizens, popular attractions and challenges. He’s one of those prominent people featured in the Dayton Region’s Walk of Fame.
Mayfield, who lived from 1896 to 1974, made history in 1910 when, as a staff photographer for the Dayton Daily News at the age of 14, he convinced Orville Wright to take him on a flight. The photo that resulted, taken 300 feet in the air aboard an “Exhibition B” Flyer, is believed to be the first aerial image from a plane in America.
For Mayfield, it was the beginning of a lifelong aerial-photography business.
Stroll through the gallery and you’ll be taken back in time to the devastating 1913 flood, and to the Armistice Day Celebration when more than 150,000 people headed downtown to celebrate the end of World War I.
Photographs of early 20th century buildings are fascinating. The Dayton Power & Light Steam Plant, today a popular party venue after its recent renovation, is pictured as it looked in its early days. You’ll see the old and new courthouses at Third and Main, the Arcade in its heyday; the fancy Apollo Theatre, now the location for the Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority station.
About the gallery
The new gallery, located off the museum’s Lower Court next to the entrance to the special exhibition galleries, previously housed pre-Columbian, Native American objects. When it was decided to fold those treasures into the newly updated Art of Ancient Americas gallery, the space became available.
The gallery is named for James M. Cox, who founded the Dayton Daily News and served as Ohio’s governor for three terms. It’s coincidence, but fortuitous, that the exhibit kicking off the newly designated photography space features a famous Daytonian who once worked for Cox as a staff newspaper photographer. The 38 historic photos on display are among the 100,000 images taken by Mayfield.
About the collectors
It’s thanks to the generosity of a Milford couple, Cristina and Ren Egbert, that we’re able to enjoy this special part of Dayton history. The Egberts collect both photos and African art of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
“When I first saw these images 20 years ago, I was immediately taken with the quality and beauty of the images as a whole,” Ren recalls. ” William Preston Mayfield had a wonderful sense of composition, an eye for the moment, and a sense of history, especially regarding his relationship with the Wright Brothers. “
The Egberts, who owned up to several thousand Mayfield images at one time, have donated many to the Wright State Library Special Archives. They currently own about 450, including the 38 you’ll see at the DAI.
“I’m a romantic and I know I would want to see images of Dayton past if it were my community,” Egbert said, when asked about his decision to loan the photos to the museum. “So much urban renewal has destroyed the character and beauty of Dayton and many other communities, the photos give you a real sense of that period of history. I want the DAI patrons to understand how their community looked at one time, and to appreciate the genius of Mayfield as a photographer. I admire his career with the Wright brothers, Dayton Daily News and his own later Pyramid Hill Studio, all the while maintaining his aerial photography as a passion throughout his lifetime.”
More about Mayfield and his work
Dayton’s Mayfield expert is photographer Marvin Christian, who not only worked with the famed photojournalist, but in 1967 purchased his studio equipment and entire collection of negatives and glass plates, which he later donated to Dayton History. He says though Mayfield was not too keen on his own self-promotion, he did have a serious sense of history and enjoyed documenting the changes in the area including history, building development and street scenes.
Along with former Dayton Daily News writer Jim Nichols, Christian published “Dayton Album – Remembering Downtown” featuring Mayfield photography. Copies are available at Dayton History’s Carillon Historical Park gift shop.
“As a photographer he was very ‘commercial’ and did not ordinarily make photographs just for the fun of it,” Christian said. “As an artist he did his composing of images in the camera. Very seldom were they cropped in the darkroom. He was particular about his photographic equipment and ran his own tests of lenses and cameras before making a choice. He always had the sharpest lenses of the times. Having the finest equipment available, an eye for good composition, and a determination to do it his way when he was ready led to his reputation as one of the best.”
Christian says Mayfield would not volunteer photographic information, but if asked would answer in detail. “He was not too sociable other than with a few close friends. He looked fondly at his time with the Dayton Daily News and had a fantastic memory for names and titles. If he knew you in 1920, he knew you in 1970.”
Mayfield, he says, greatly admired Orville Wright and says the beginning of his passion for aviation began with his time spent at Huffman Prairie when he printed some of the images taken by the Wright brothers. He later shot “tens of thousands” of aerial negatives.
The Dayton History archives is the repository for the Mayfield collection of historical images with many of the photos now available online for use by the general public. Christian says Mayfield would have liked that idea. You can access them online at daytonhistory.pastperfectonline.com/.
“He was a cigar-chewing boss and a tough taskmaster at times,” Christian says. “At retirement he continued to read photo journals, pass on tidbits of information, and on occasion lend a hand in my studio with merchandise set-ups. A mentor, a teacher (of good and bad), a friend, and someone to be admired for his talent and the part he has played in the success of my own career.”
Future plans for the new gallery
Curating the Mayfield exhibition was Kettering Curator of Photography and Special Projects Katherine Ryckman Siegwarth, who says the museum plans to host three focus exhibits in the new gallery space in 2020.
“The museum has 26,000 objects, and about 17,000 are works on paper which cannot be shown long-term because they are more light sensitive than paintings,” she says. “The works tend to be smaller and this is a great space for presenting this portion of our collection because it’s a more intimate gallery space.”
“We always love paintings because they are big and colorful and can stay up longer, but the details you can find on works on paper reflect an incredible range of techniques and themes,” Siegwarth says. “ We look forward to showing everything from historic photographic processes —like daguerreotypes— to more recent acquisitions of modern photos printed on vellum.”
Siegwarth, who will curate the 2020 exhibits for the new gallery, says two of the shows will be collection-based works rarely seen. The fall exhibition will be a loaned show highlighting Dallas-based photographer Dornith Doherty, whose work focuses on biodiversity and documenting seed banks.
This DAI collection, she adds, has a lot of breadth. “We have a strong collection of early 20th century travel photography— a lot of views of Japan and other Asian countries, great views of the United Kingdom as well as the American West. It will be exciting to dig into all of that and show people some highlights.”