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Wynn Richards (1888-1960)

Introduction & Biographical Essay | Resources

Introduction & Biographical Essay


Introduction

Martha "Matsy" Wynn Richards was one of those women whose talent, ambition and personality could not coexist peacefully within the rigid social limits for women in small-town America early in the twentieth century. Raised as a southern belle, she joined the Great Migration from the South when strict adherence to older traditions forced many others to leave, as well. She belonged to the wave of "New Women" who came into their own in the 1920s. She went on to become a professional photographer of note.

Portrait photograph of Wynn Richards.
Portrait Photograph of Wynn Richards.
(Detail from) "Experiment Brought her Success,"
Popular Photography, August 1938, pages 24 and 25.
LC-dig-ppmsca-09378

Richards trained as a Pictorialist in 1918 and 1919 at the Clarence White School of Photography in New York City, and then operated a portrait studio in her hometown of Greenville, Mississippi. After centuries of looking to Europe for cultural leadership, America was developing its own forms of creative expression and New York City was emerging as the center of that movement. In 1922 Richards relocated there and soon found work at Vogue magazine.

After World War I, people showed little interest in the quality of illusion characteristic of the Pictorialist aesthetic. Sharp-focus and artificial lighting were replacing the soft-focus, available-light style she learned initially. With course work in advertising photography at the White School in 1924, Richards broke ground as one of the very first women in a newly emerging area of fashion photography. Richards not only successfully bridged the Pictorialist and Modernist movements but rose to the top of her field and remained there for more than 25 years.

The Library holds only a few of Richards's photographs but many of her photographs are represented in the editorial and advertising pages of major magazines from the 1920s to 1960. See the related resources section of this site for citations of examples of her published photographs.

Early Life

Still life photograph showing candlestick, flowers in a vase, books, and scissors.
[Candlestick, flowers in a vase, books, and scissors], ca. 1918.
Wynn Richards, photographer.
LC-USZC4-9788

Born Martha Kinman Wynn in Friars Point, Mississippi, "Matsy" claimed 1888 as her birth date, but census data and passenger records indicate she was born sometime between 1885 and 1887.1 She attended finishing school at Ward Belmont in Nashville, and, after her debut, married Dorsey Eugene Richards, some sixteen years her senior. In 1908, her son, Harper Richards, was born.2

A devout Christian Scientist, Richards was inspired to become a photographer by reading an article about photographic careers in an issue of the 1918 Christian Science Monitor.3 Winning second prize in a New York Post national photo contest that year reinforced her choice.

Richards explored courses at several institutions before she selected White's school in New York. Leaving her ten-year-old son with her contractor husband "building levees across the Delta," Richards attended the 1918 summer session in Canaan, Connecticut.4 In the fall, she joined the regular thirty-week class. The Library's Clarence White collection contains a number of photographs of his summer school but not for the year Richards attended.

Launching a Portrait Career

On May 5, 1919, Richards opened a portrait studio in a stable on her parents' property and called it "Ye Olde Barne Studio." She stayed in touch with her White School friends and contributed funding to the School. For the years that Richards operated her Greenville studio, she conformed to the Pictorialist tradition of considering herself an amateur and worked on her own to "solve problems" in composition, lighting and printing according to White School methods. To practice the effects of natural lighting on the human body, she worked with a local woman who taught school. After people learned that the teacher had posed nude for Richards, a scandal ensued. Richards left social expectations behind. She ended her marriage, placed her son with his grandmother, let a friend take over her photography studio, and moved to New York City.5

Stationery includes a print of a barn surrounded by trees accompanied by letterpress "Ye Olde Barne Studio, Blanton Park, Greenville, Miss.". Text of letter from Wynn Richards to Walter L. Hervey: June 26, 1920. Walter L. Hervey. 351 West 114th St., New York City. Dear Mr. Hervey, Enclosed find check for fifty dollars ($50.00) amount due you to cover my pledge for the share in the corporation for the White School building. I wish I could make my check much larger for I am very much interested in the success of the school but at the time I am unable to do so. Very truly yours, Mrs. D. E. Richards.
Manuscript letter from Wynn Richards to Walter L. Hervey, June 26, 1920. [front]
On letterhead of "Ye Olde Barne Studio."
LC-DIG-ppmsca-09727
Back of letter.
Manuscript letter from Wynn Richards to Walter L. Hervey, June 26, 1920. [back]
LC-DIG-ppmsca-09728

Working for Vogue, 1922-1924

In the summer of 1922, Richards opened a studio in Newport, Rhode Island, where she met architect and designer Weymer Mills. Then editor of decorations for Vogue, Mills hired her to provide photographs of fashion, hospitality, and decor, especially domestic interiors. Richards' sensitivities and Pictorialist training facilitated her transition to her new duties. Initially she signed her work "Matsy Wynn Richards." Increasingly aware after only three months that her gender could hinder her career, she began using her two surnames professionally, signing herself as "Wynn Richards." Her photographs appeared in Vogue through July 1, 1924.

Comparing pages of Vogue in successive issues from the early 1920s shows the magazine's visible shift to a more modern aesthetic that reflected changes in fashion and design. As the ideal for women's bodies shifted from hour glass to angular, the magazine changed appearance, as well. Photographs began to outnumber drawings, straight-edged frames around photographs replaced borders drawn to resemble tie-back curtains, and casual clothes appeared more frequently.

Illustration shows formal garden with fountain and sculptures at the home of Anna Van Nest Gambrill, Newport, Rhode Island.
Vernon Court The Newport house of Mrs. Gambrill
Vogue, December 1, 1922, page 53.
Wynn Richards, photographer.
LC-DIG-ppmsca-38462
Photograph shows the corner of a room with light pouring through the window and open door.
Interior [room with light pouring through the window and open door], ca. 1922.
Wynn Richards, photographer.
LC-DIG-ppmsca-09109

It was the beginning of the flapper era in women's fashions and Vogue's art department told the story. When Edward Steichen succeeded the famous photographer Baron Adolph de Meyer as art director, Steichen quickly replaced Pictorialism with straight photography. Richards began shifting her style immediately. While photographing for the May 15, 1923 issue of Vogue, Richards found a variety of artificial lights in the studio. Rather than admit her lack of experience, she adjusted some of them and prayed the photographs would be acceptable, which they were. As she told a reporter years later, her "experiments in lighting led [her] straight to fashion photography, for [she] found out that correct lighting was the secret in bringing out textures and other qualities of material."

In 1924, Richards returned to the White School for courses in commercial work and lighting. Betty Frear, the friend who had taken over her Olde Barne Studio in 1922, may have taken the White School class at the same time.6 Later that year, they both relocated to Chicago. As "Richards-Frear," they opened a studio in the Italian Court Building at 619 North Michigan Avenue, the city's prestigious new commercial "Gold Coast" area.

Advertising Career

In late 1928, Richards and Frear moved to New York City, where Frear wrote advertising copy and Richards provided photographs to upscale consumer publications, including some for the national accounts she had handled in Chicago. Richards followed White's advice to maintain artistic quality in every photograph.

Back-lit silhouette of nude woman behind shower curtain.
[Woman in shower], ca. 1932.
Wynn Richards, photographer.
LC-USZC4-98132
Photograph shows a glamorous woman smoking a cigarette, facing backwards, wearing low-backed garment.
[Woman with cigarette], ca. 1932.
Wynn Richards, photographer.
LC-DIG-ppmsca-09110
Magazine article by Dora Albert about photojournalist Wynn Richards; illustrated with two photographs by Richards and a portrait photograph of Richards.
"Experiment Brought her Success,"
Popular Photography, August 1938, pages 24 and 25.
LC-DIG-ppmsca-09378

Portrait and Art Photography

Richards made debutante and society portraits, some of which the New York Times used in engagement announcements and articles. Richards' photographs appeared in one-person and group art exhibitions throughout her career.

Advertising photograph for National Cotton Council shows two fashion models superimposed on an image of a loom in a cotton mill.
[Preparing yarn for weaving], 1948.
Collage constructed from 2 photographic print cutouts on 1 photographic print.
Wynn Richards, photographer.
LC-USZC4-9825

Like Steichen, Richards made little distinction between her advertising and art photography. Images she exhibited had often already appeared in magazines as advertisements or fashion illustrations. In Richards' April 1934 exhibition at the exclusive Julien Levy Gallery, she paid homage to fashion photography and women associated with that industry. She exhibited forty-seven portraits, writing: "By the time women have reached the top rung in their business ladder, they have often traded what they had of beauty in their faces for character and intelligence. But this makes them all the more photographic."

As a pioneer fashion photographer, Richards worked hard to ensure that other women could realize their talents. In about 1929, Richards helped found the Fashion Group of New York and was very active in its program to train young women as early as high school to become professional photographers.

Beginning in 1943, Richards undertook her largest commercial assignment: three series of photographs for the National Cotton Council, of which her brother William T. Wynn was a founding member. She photographed the wives and children of the governors of several southern states wearing cotton fashions, fashion designers with their creations, and the story of cotton production. The photographs appeared in full-page advertisements in Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and Mademoiselle.

Personal and Professional Lives Connect

Richards, who enjoyed a bohemian life in New York, stayed on in the city during the Great Depression. Her Mississippi family, worried that her marital status might be used against her in the job market, pressured her into marrying her longtime housemate, British naval officer Herbert Taylor, who also served as her business manager. Richards successfully operated a busy commercial and portrait photography studio from their penthouse apartment.

In 1937, Taylor published the book My Best Photograph and Why, featuring Richards and 40 other professional photographers, including fellow White School alumna Margaret Bourke-White. Richards' text in the book expressed her great admiration and respect for Clarence White and the White School.

Text from 'My Best Photographs' includes commentary from photographer and photographer's biographical information.
Text with Richards' comments on: Fashion - Skinner's satin, copyright 1937.
Text in: My Best Photograph and Why, p. 70. Wynn Richards, photographer.
LC-DIG-ppmsca-09379
Illustration shows woman wearing a gown posed against a wall on which shadows of venetian blinds are projected.
Fashion - Skinner's satin, copyright 1937.
Illus. in: My Best Photograph and Why, p. 71. Wynn Richards, photographer.
LC-DIG-ppmsca-09380

Home to Mississippi

When Taylor died in 1945, Richards lost her life partner, her business manager, and her photo assistant. She struggled to continue her work--for instance, in 1947 she served as a judge for the Miss America pageant, one of only two women on a panel of eleven judges--but in 1949, when water severely damaged her studio and destroyed much of her life's work, she returned to Mississippi rather than reestablish herself at age 63.

In Greenville, Richards took up parts of the life she had abandoned nearly 40 years earlier, such as participating in the local drama group. She photographed her grandchildren and local debutantes in a studio designed by her architect son. She painted the studio her favorite color--hot pink, a color perhaps symbolic of Richards' assertive femininity. In 1960, Richards died at home.

Achievements

Richards's established a career when few professional photography opportunities existed for women. She entered her profession just as formal education and institutional frameworks for fashion photographers began to operate in New York. Even so, she felt forced to choose between being a wife, mother, and social leader or a woman with a career. Richards made a lifelong commitment to photography--not just as a career, but as an art form.

Through her work with schools and professional organizations, Richards helped advance the concept of careers for women. Although she dropped from popular view in the last quarter of the twentieth century, Richards' photographs are being rediscovered through exhibitions and the art photography market.


Notes

1 Richards' nephew Douglas Wynn gave her birth date as January 7, 1885, in a note to his step-daughter LeAnne Gault about, "Reflections in a Shuttered Eye: The Life and Career of Wynn Richards," a term paper that Gault prepared for a photography class at the University of Mississippi at Oxford, 1998. U.S. Census records for 1910, 1920, and 1930 suggest various other birth dates as well as occupations for Dorsey Eugene Richards. Passenger records for 1926 indicate an 1887 birthdate.

2 Richards, Holly. "Matsy Wynn Richards As a Pioneer," The Delta Democrat Times. Greenville, MS: April 11, 1982, 6c.

3 Biographical sketches by family members cite this inspiration but initial searches of the national edition have failed to locate the article. Regional or local editions of the publication may exist.

4 Bonnie Yochelson, Wynn Richards. Photofind Gallery, 1989: [3].

5 [Yochelson, Bonnie. Wynn Richards. Exhibition Catalogue, Photofind Gallery, New York, 1989, p. 1, as quoted in Gault, op. cit. , 2.]

6 Frear's name appears on a 1925 list of White School Alumni, suggesting that the two women attended the White School together.


Prepared by: Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2013. Last revised: 2015.


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