A Changing World

New England in the Photographs of Verner Reed

1950 – 1972

In June 1953 Verner Reed (1923 – 2006) was taking pictures of a protest in front of the Massachusetts State House in Boston. Convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s executions were scheduled for later that week. Their supporters and detractors were out in force. While he worked, Reed was approached by a Life magazinewriter who had no photographer with him that day. Reed agreed to help cover the story, and so began his six-year stint covering New England for Life.

Reed had first turned to photography in the late 1940s in Vermont to document the handcrafted furniture he made. Soon, though, he took an interest in photography as a mode of self-expression. He moved to Boston in the early 1950s, where he spent much of his time, camera in hand, exploring the city’s streets and photographing its inhabitants. He also sought out freelance work on the side. These two worlds–creating images of life in and around the city and earning a living from photography–came together serendipitously at the Rosenberg protest.

During his photographic career, Reed’s work was also featured in other national magazines such as Fortune and Time, regional publications including Vermont Life, and several New England newspapers. His work came to encompass what it means to be a New Englander. We discover in Reed’s photographs a turbulent, lively, changeable New England–a place that defies its long-held reputation as being overly dependent on the past. Reed’s New Englanders respected tradition, and relished and maintained much of value from the past, but were deeply engaged with the coming of a new age.

All photographs are drawn from the collections of Historic New England. They are part of the Verner Reed Archive, a collection of more than 26,000 negatives and prints, which was donated by Verner and Deborah Reed.

This content is excerpted from an exhibition curated by John R. Stomberg.

 

Photo Gallery

Kennedy

Senator and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, Hyannisport, Massachusetts, 1955

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  • Kennedy

    Senator and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, Hyannisport, Massachusetts, 1955

  • Country Auction

    Couple at Auction, Albany, Vermont, 1951

  • Rosenberg

    Vigil for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Boston, 1953

  • Muskie

    Edmund S. Muskie with daughter, Rumford, Maine, 1954

  • Tasha Tudor

    Girl with wreath, Webster, New Hampshire, 1955

The Photographer as Storyteller

Verner Reed’s Photo Essays

These images help us recognize the rhetorical power of the medium–to see that photography has a point of view, shaped to varying degrees by the photographer, picture editor, and publication. Did Reed take sides in the Rosenberg trial demonstrations? Are the pictures of then-Senator John F. Kennedy sympathetic to, or critical of, the young politician?

Reed’s numerous photo essays show that he generally took seriously his responsibility to be an objective reporter. An image of Maine’s Edmund S. Muskie waiting for gubernatorial election results could be seen as unflattering, but in combination with the sympathetic post-election photograph of him with his daughter, we realize that Reed attempted to be true to the story as he experienced it.

Photographs shape our understanding of history, and some of Reed’s photo essays covered stories of obvious historical importance, such as the Rosenberg protest or JFK as senator.

Others probably seemed less telling at the time, such as the shoot at the home of Tasha Tudor, a well-known children’s book author, or the afternoon he spent at a country auction in Albany, Vermont. In retrospect, though, all of the images tell stories of what it meant to live in 1950s and 1960s New England.

Kennedy: On the day Reed took his first Kennedy photographs, he recalls Mrs. Kennedy telling him that Ashe was writing a book about a young senator on his way to the presidency. The allusion was obvious, but I didn’t take any of it seriously. Over the coming years, Reed would cover Kennedy for both Life and Time, capturing the young senator in his office, on the street, and campaigning for Foster Furcolo (John Foster Furcolo, Governor of Massachusetts, 1957-1961). During the period when Reed photographed JFK, the story was still largely local. Kennedy came from a prominent Boston family, and his presidential aspirations were largely covert. See more.

Country Auction: Characteristically, Reed decided to focus on the people attending this rural antiques auction rather than the event itself. In these images, he seems particularly concerned with the people’s post-auction emotions. As the adrenaline of the sale subsides, does the reality of life with one’s new treasures live up to the earlier anticipation?

Rosenberg: In June 1953, Reed spent an afternoon photographing protesters in front of the Massachusetts State House in Boston. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who had been convicted in 1951 on espionage charges for passing secrets about nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union, were scheduled to be executed on June 19, 1953. The emotionally charged conflict spilled into the streets, where supporters of clemency clashed with those who favored the death penalty. A writer for Life magazine was trying to cover the story without the aid of a photographer. Seeing Reed, the reporter asked if he would be willing to cover the protests for him. Reed’s acceptance marked the beginning of his six-year career as a photojournalist for Life. See more.

Muskie: Edmund S. Muskie started politics with a successful 1946 run for a seat in the Maine House of Representatives, where he served three consecutive terms. Reed shows Muskie in his hometown on the day of the 1954 Maine gubernatorial election. Reed’s pictures cover the story from the tension while the results were still coming in to the elation after they revealed Muskie had won. Like Kennedy, Muskie went on to a dramatic political career, becoming the first Democrat in Maine’s history to be elected U.S. senator. He ran for president in 1968 and 1972, and finished his political career as Secretary of State in 1980-1981. See more.

Tasha Tudor: Reed’s Life photo essay, “A Wedding in a Land of Dolls,” described the fanciful wedding of dolls at the home of children’s book author Tasha Tudor. Tudor famously eschewed the trappings of modern living and created instead a carefully constructed world based on nostalgia for pre-modern America. Reed took advantage of his time at Tudor’s house to capture not only the wedding, his assigned subject, but a bit of this remarkable family’s way of life. See more.

More to Explore

See more images by Verner Reed in our Collections Access database.

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Visit Historic New England's Library and Archives in Boston.

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See more Historic New England exhibitions.

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