Thelma Massengill standing in the photobooth trailer, 1930s
The Massengill Family
Making Pictures: Three For A Dime
October 9 - November 15, 2014
Institute 193, Lexington
In the 1930s, the Massengill family of rural Arkansas built three portable photography studios on old truck frames, attached each to the back of any car that would run, and started a mobile photo booth business that would last for a decade. Without formal training or help, the Massengill family invented and improvised ways to mimic the popular photo booths they had seen in drugstores and brought their business to the dirt roads and open fields they knew so well. Making Pictures: Three for a Dime, featuring Massengill family prints and photo albums collected by the artist Maxine Payne, illuminates a sliver of the Depression-era South previously unseen by the public.
Unlike the hardscrabble lives and worn down faces captured by WPA photographers of the time, the Massengill photographs often show folks working to look their best. A man mugs in his Sunday suit and hat; a girl preens with lusty eyes; a boy clutches his prize rooster. Hand-painted backdrops, colorized prints, and even the occasional prop add a playful edge to these scenes. Among them, we also get a haunting glimpse or two of the difficult lives being lived outside of these moments. Not unlike discovered troves of photographs by Vivian Maier or Mike Disfarmer, the Massengill photographs invite us to reconsider a time and place from a new perspective.
Alongside the prints and albums, this volume includes introductions by Payne and curator Phillip March Jones, short remembrances from Lance and Evelyn Massengill, and a transcribed diary that recounts the difficulties and successes of the family business in short, powerful bursts. (“June 18, 1939 Mr Pennington drowned today. We went home about 4:00 o’clock and made cream at mama’s.”) Collected here in a handsome and ample design, Making Pictures: Three for a Dime is the definitive volume of the Massengill photographs.