Jane Reece, known as Dayton’s most important artist and photographer of any generation, combined dramatic poses with striking lighting to create images that garnered international recognition.
Her career started in 1903 after she became seriously ill and was sent to recuperate in Southern Pines, N.C. She began painting while convalescing but reacted badly to the turpentine used in oil painting and could not continue.
A nurse caring for her during the illness lent her a camera and Reece took her first photographs of children and scenes around the area. Months later the self-taught photographer moved to Dayton and opened a studio in a downtown house naming it “The Rembrandt.”
In 1935 Reece described to a reporter for “The National Altrusan” the creative urge that led her to photography. “I love it more and more as I delve into its hidden possibilities. Each portrait made is a fresh experience – a new phase of life – one short reading of a face capable of an infinite variety of expressions,” she said.
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It was unusual for women to follow a career path in the arts at the turn of the century and female photographers were especially rare, according to a Dayton Art Institute narrative published in conjunction with a 1997 museum exhibition “The Soul Unbound: The Photographs of Jane Reece.”
Reece worked in a style called Pictorialism, which was popular toward the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century. The photographic style depicts people and scenes in dreamy lighting and soft focus, and it was part of a larger movement known as Photo-Secession, which sought to promote photography as a fine art.
“Early in the 20th century photographers tried to convince both the public and the art establishment that photography was on an equal par with the other fine arts,” said Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, the former Chief Curator, Curator of European Art at The Dayton Art Institute, in 2016. “Yet because photography used ‘scientific’ principles and extensive equipment, many critics thought it could not be considered in the same way as painting. In response, Pictorialist photographers created images which were soft-focused and atmospheric, poetic and evocative.”
“In these Pictorialist works, both the photographer’s vision and hand were evident, just as in a drawing or painting,” said DeGalan. “The Pictorialist works by Jane Reece mark a watershed moment in the history of photography as the medium gained acceptance as a form of artistic impression.”
For part of the year in 1909 Reece moved to New York City to study photography at Columbia University. When she returned to Dayton she opened a new studio in the Callahan Building at Main and Third Streets where she worked until 1917.
While prominent Dayton families were seeking her out for family portraits, including Bishop Wright (the father of Wilbur and Orville Wright), Reece practiced her whimsical photographic style.
“I don’t photograph – I use my camera as an artist uses his brush – to make the picture I already see in my mind,” she told the Monterrey Peninsula Herald in 1945.
She exhibited her portraits nationally and internationally, which led to world-wide recognition during the 1920s and 1930s.
Her reputation helped pave the way to photographing the influential. Photographs of Margaret Woodrow Wilson, the daughter of the former president, the sculptor Lorado Taft, Helen Keller and the poet Robert Frost are among the portraits that filled her portfolio.
A combination of failing eyesight and changes in photographic taste began to wind down her career in the late ’30s and she stopped taking photographs at age 76 in the mid 1940s.
In 1952 she donated more than 9,000 negatives and 400 photographic works to the Dayton Art Institute, the largest body of her work anywhere.
“The expressive and unique vision of Jane Reece’s work and her time spent in New York alongside other Photo-Secessionists such as Alfred Stieglitz and Clarence White, makes her work not simply relevant to Dayton but to the larger history of the medium,” said DeGalan.
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HISTORY EXTRA is a weekly pictorial history feature showcasing the Miami Valley’s rich heritage. If you have a unique set of historic photos found in your parents’ or grandparents’ attic that depicts the past in the Miami Valley, contact Lisa Powell at 937-225-2229 or at Lisa.Powell@coxinc.com.