59 School Street, Box 1310, Edgartown MA 02539 - 508.627.4441
Martha's Vineyard Museum MV Museum

Shute's Contemporaries and Place in the History of American Photography

Introduction Biography Shute's Place in History The Exhibit


Photograph of Richard Shute

The Shute family adopted many of the technological innovations of photography occurring in the late nineteenth century despite their relative isolation on the Island. One such innovation was the wet plate or wet collodion method introduced in the 1850s. This wet-plate process in which a negative is made possible by coating a sheet of glass with a light-sensitive mix of gun cotton dissolved in alcohol and ether allowed for less exposure time and a sharper, more detailed image. It was also an improvement on earlier processes since it was more efficient and relatively less expensive than the calotype method, which relied on paper negatives, and the daguerreotype, which produced a one-of-a-kind image that could not be replicated.

Although the Shutes worked mainly with ambrotypes in the earlier years, producing a great deal of portrait photography, their adoption of the wet-plate process allowed them to expand into a variety of photographic mediums, such as stereo-cards and tintypes. In addition, with the growing popularity of the wet-plate collodion in the late nineteenth century, the Shutes found an excellent way of satisfying a new rising consumer market for landscape and architectural photography.

Further photographic innovations in the 1870s, such as dry collodion plates and paper photography, and the introduction of magnesium flash-powder in the 1880s opened up additional opportunities for Richard to mass-produce photos and to better record images of interiors. In fact, Richard went on to photograph the elegant drawing rooms and parlors of many of the historic Edgartown hotels, as well as document the relative simplicity of the Methodists' homes at Cottage City. Overall the Shutes' willingness to embrace the latest photographic developments and trends shows how well they responded to consumer interests and a new leisure, middle-class culture.

Regardless of these photographic innovations and their ability to satisfy a consumer, resort market, Richard and Charles first and foremost always tried to emphasize the beauty of the Island itself. Not only did their photos capture the daily lives and experiences happening on Martha's Vineyard, but they also signify how powerful the Shutes' images have been, and still are, in documenting the history and evolution of the Island in the late nineteenth century.