Theresa Babb’s Photographs of Friendship (ca. 1898)

Camden, Maine is one of two places on the East Coast “where the mountains meet the sea”, writes Barbara F. Dyer, a local historian. Photographing its harbor and hills at the turn of the twentieth century, Theresa Babb (1868–1948) recorded both the intimacies of social life and her hometown’s industrial and seafaring traditions. What stands out most about Babb’s images is how they let us glimpse into a personal world of female friendship, captured in such a way that seems both timeless and strikingly modern.

In The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship, Marilyn Yalom describes the rise of the “new woman” in the late-nineteenth century, whose education, race, and class position created “a new model of friendship” that was “to last for much of the twentieth century”. She quotes a woman interviewed during this rise: “We live for our friends, and at bottom for no other reason.” Babb’s portraits do not fall neatly into this history, but certainly share the quoted sentiment. The groups of women she photographed are neither fully focused on the ennobling, moral uplift associated with “the serious New Woman” nor anticipatory of the “carefree flapper” that was to follow. Instead, we find joyful depictions of friendship among women, often on countryside outings, during a decade in US history remembered as “the gay nineties”. In the image above, Babb and three friends drink, heads thrown back, while lounging on a rocky shore. A fifth woman stares off toward the water, either comically posed in feigned disapproval or simply lost in thought. Several other images continue the theme, reflecting the pleasures of posing in groups. In a photograph captioned “Camping crowd at Ogier Point”, four women lean on each other, pulling faces for the camera; another image depicts friends and family of Babbs stacked on a ladder, with her sister, Grace Parker, on top.

Babb’s chosen angles make these 120-year-old images feel remarkably contemporary. Photographing “some of Miss Garland’s girls” in Milton, Massachusetts in 1900, Babb places her camera near to the ground and eight women, seated on grass, peer down toward the lens. In another image, young people swim in the sea, while Babb seems to be floating on a boat, with her camera trained back toward shore. The activities are numerous: dancing, picnicking, dog walking, dinner parties, photography, bicycling, child care, hammocking, and naps on the beach are all represented. Spending time with these images, we start to feel as if we know Theresa Babb. And yet, in terms of biographical information, we know very little. Her husband was the treasurer of Knox Woolen Mill, Charles W. Babb, and her son, Charles Jr., succeeded in the family business, becoming President of the mill. On the envelopes that house the negatives of these photographs, Theresa Babb wrote detailed captions, small missives to some future onlooker.

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