Skip to content

Looking at Life

ABOVE LEFT Evening Chores, Webster, New Hampshire, 1955. Photograph by Verner Reed.
ABOVE CENTER Self Portrait, Boston, 1953.
ABOVE RIGHT Easter Parade, Boston, 1954.

Verner Reed focused his lens on events, people, and places in the 1950s and '60s in New England. In 2002, photographer Verner Reed and his wife, Deborah, greatly enriched Historic New England's photographic holdings by donating 26,000 negatives made during his career. This one acquisition has dramatically altered the make up of the collection. Where previously there were relatively few images documenting daily life in New England in the 1950s and '60s, now there is an abundance. Among the stunning and insightful photographs are views of New England landscapes, portraits of the famous and the not-so-famous, depictions of news events, and studies of rural and urban life.

ABOVE LEFT Rosenberg Vigil, Boston, 1953.
ABOVE RIGHT Senator and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, Hyannisport, Massachusetts, 1955. While working for Life, Reed covered numerous news stories. He recalled his Kennedy assignments: "I had two Life assignments, one for Time, and once John Kennedy came to my studio to have his portrait taken. The nicest assignment was at the senator's home in Hyannisport. It was a rainy afternoon, and I took a great many pictures of JFK. Jackie made cookies and tea for us, and she was a charming hostess. On the way out, I took a picture of the two of them in the dining room...and I think [it is one of the] best pictures I got of him, ever."

Verner Reed is a man of protean talent. He has variously been a furniture maker, photographer, storekeeper, farmer, trash collector, sculptor, automobile enthusiast, and a jewelry maker, and to each of these pursuits, he has brought enormous enthusiasm and creativity. Reed was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1923, and was raised in North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Vermont. At the age of eleven, he began taking pictures—mainly, as he says, "of horses, girls, and boats"—with a Brownie camera and learned to develop his own prints. Reed graduated from Milton Academy, attended Harvard, and then served in the U. S. Army Air Corps during World War II. In 1947, he moved to Vermont and embarked on a career as a furniture maker. Rather than pay a commercial photographer to shoot promotional images of his furniture, Reed decided to take them himself. Turning to Ansel Adams's "how-to" books and the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Reed taught himself the craft. He became so fascinated with photography that he sold the furniture business and started working as a freelance photographer.

ABOVE LEFT Edmund S. Muskie, Rumford, Maine, 1954.
ABOVE CENTER Butternut Fudge, Tunbridge, Vermont, 1955. Reed described his encounter with the proprietor of the fudge stand: "I had left the [Tunbridge] fair for the day and I noticed her. She's not in the fair grounds, she's outside; she wouldn't go inside because she said it was too raunchy and too wild, and not a proper place for her to be. I took the picture and then spoke to her. I went back the next day and I gave her a print. She got all fumbled and wanted to know how much she owed...she wanted to pay me for it. I wouldn't have charged her, she was a very dear little old lady."
ABOVE RIGHT Adams Wood Mill, Stowe, Vermont, 1952.

In 1953, Reed moved to Boston and set up his own studio, where he focused on portraits, weddings, and architectural photography. In June of that year he had what he calls a lucky break while photographing a demonstration in front of the State House in Boston about the imminent executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. There, Reed met a writer from Life magazine who was covering the event without a photographer. Noticing Reed and his camera, the writer asked if he could provide the much-needed images and hired him on the spot. After that, Life hired Reed as its primary freelance photographer covering New England.

ABOVE LEFT Turkeys, Boston, 1952.
ABOVE CENTER Dreamland, Tunbridge, Vermont, 1963.
ABOVE RIGHT Teenie Weenie, Boston, 1957.

From 1953 to 1958, Reed did 125 assignments for Life and shot more than 1,600 rolls of film. His favorite assignment was a story about a doll's wedding at the artist Tasha Tudor's house in New Hampshire. "What I really liked," Reed recalls, "was not doing the wedding, which was just another job, but the atmosphere of her place, and the naturalness of the way the kids were…and the love and warmth that seemed to permeate…the whole place." The picture he is most proud of, Evening Chores, (see cover) was shot at that time. "It brings back the warmth, the togetherness of that family. Somehow the feeling of that barn is almost church-like to me. The lighting is like a church. It's almost a holy picture. That's the way I feel about it," he says. As for working for Life, Reed comments, "[It] was a pretty heady job for a thirty-year-old. It paid well and when you had that Life magazine card, you could get in anywhere. All you really had to do was take photographs, take the film out of the camera, and pop it off to New York. If they used your photos, you were paid extra. They printed one out of every ten stories shot for each issue—it depended on what was happening in the world. Your story might be replaced overnight by a breaking news event." The publisher Henry Luce offered him a staff position with Time-Life in New York, but Reed declined, preferring to remain in New England and to retain his freelance status and thus the copyright for his work. In 1958, Life ran a story describing the nuclear bomb as a "clean" bomb. Believing that this was an editorial opinion and should have been labeled as such, Reed acted upon his convictions and severed his relationship with the magazine.

ABOVE LEFT Washington Street, Boston, 1955. Reed lived in Boston in the 1950s. During that time, the city and its inhabitants became his subject matter. Whether covering tony events such as the party celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of The Atlantic Monthly (right) or life on the street, Reed was able to capture the vitality and complexity of a mid-twentieth-century American city.
ABOVE RIGHT Snow covered pines during a winter in New England

During the 1970s, he and his wife, Deborah, made their own "back-to-the land" move—first to Stowe, Vermont, and then to Pemaquid, Maine, where they worked a salt-water farm, raised sheep and chickens, and had an egg route. Throughout this time, Reed continued his interest in photography and sculpture. In 1980, the family moved to the Portland, Maine, area, and Reed began his third artistic pursuit of silversmithing and jewelry making.

In addition to working for Life, Reed also contributed to Yankee magazine, Fortune, Paris Match, and Time. Returning to Vermont in 1960, he developed a long-lasting relationship with Vermont Life magazine and continued to chronicle the life and landscape of New England. At that time, Reed began his second artistic career as a sculptor.

Several years ago, Verner and Deborah Reed began to look at Reed's negatives, which had been stored for many years, and to consider the disposition of the archive. They approached SPNEA (now Historic New England) and visited the Library and Archives. Impressed by the breadth of its holdings, which include some 350,000 photographs, and by the ready accessibility of the collection to the public, they decided to donate their archive to SPNEA. Before the negatives were handed over, the Reeds assumed the laborious task of arranging and organizing the collection in the best possible fashion, a process that took more than a year.

Individually, Verner Reed's photographs are remarkable—as documents of a place and an era and as works of art. Collectively, they contain a wealth of information about New England's social and cultural history and its material culture. They are also rich with artistry, wit, and insights into human nature—all of which reflect the character of a man with great zest for life.

-Lorna Condon
Curator, Library and Archives

ABOVE LEFT Men at Cattle Auction, Morrisville, Vermont, 1953.
ABOVE RIGHT Aroostook County Potato Picking, Maine, 1954. Throughout his career, Reed chronicled rural New England. His photographs—of parades and cattle auctions, country weddings and farm worker protests, children at work and country fairs—superbly document a way of life that was rapidly changing.

LEFT County Fair, Tunbridge, Vermont, 1955. According to Reed: "The Tunbridge Fair is a country fair like you have in every New England state, only Tunbridge calls itself the Tunbridge World's Fair. It has a reputation for being one of the wildest and raunchiest, and I think it is all those things, and, as such, it's fascinating, and I went there several times to photograph it."

Reed took Dreamland at the Tunbridge Fair: "[It] was late in the day, it was almost dark. I remember the lighting was very poor. They don't look like a very active bunch, do they? But a few minutes after this was taken, the doors opened and they had a combo in there, piano, violin, drums probably. And these people danced... and they danced up a storm that you wouldn't believe. You wouldn't think that these people could move, but they could and they were good dancers."

The work of Verner Reed is the subject of Historic New England's latest exhibition, A Changing World: New England in the Photographs of Verner Reed, 1950–1972, now on view at the National Heritage Museum, Lexington, Massachusetts. More than seventy beautiful original prints, many of them never before published or exhibited, are on display. The show runs through January 2, 2005. For more information, please call (781) 861-6559.

In addition, lovers of photography and of the region and indeed anyone who lived through the times Reed covered will want to own the handsome new book surveying his work, described on page 19 of this issue. Beautifully printed, the book will make an ideal holiday gift.

Looking at Life