Raymond Pitcairn as Photographer

Glencairn Museum News | Number 3, 2012

 

Nathan and Gabriele Pitcairn, circa 1915, Posing with Their Father's Camera Box

 
 

This photograph of Carina Glenn, Raymond Pitcairn's sister-in-law, was taken by him in the photographic studio he built across the street from Cairnwood. It won second prize in 1913 at the Eighth Annual Exhibition of Photographs held by John Wanamaker in Philadelphia.

 

Raymond Pitcairn (1885–1966) is perhaps best remembered for building Bryn Athyn Cathedral, a renowned New Church place of worship, and Glencairn, a home for his family and art collections. Raymond’s interest in photography is less well known, but his extensive efforts in this medium are treasured by local historians: “Raymond became a serious amateur photographer in his early 20s and continued to enjoy photography as a hobby throughout his lifetime. It was in connection with this hobby that he undertook his first architectural project: designing a photographic studio above the garage across the street from his home at Cairnwood. The studio featured a large room with skylights, where he posed his subjects, and an adjoining darkroom. In 1913, one of his posed studio photographs [see photo, left] took second prize in a popular annual photography exhibition held by John Wanamaker in Philadelphia. (One of the judges was Alfred Stieglitz, remembered today as the father of modern American photography.) A large archive of photographic prints and negatives from the Pitcairn collection—including thousands of glass negatives—is now stored in the Glencairn Museum Archives” (Ed and Kirsten Gyllenhaal, Images of America: The Bryn Athyn Historic District, 2011, p. 8).

 

John Walker (Center) and Four Bryn Athyn Cathedral Stone Carvers

 

One of the largest collections in Glencairn Museum’s archive of glass negatives is comprised of photographs detailing nearly every aspect of the construction of Bryn Athyn Cathedral. Raymond Pitcairn, appointed to oversee the building project, was encouraged by the noted architect, Ralph Adams Cram, to document the unique building process—including the taking of photographs. In August of 1913 Cram wrote to Pitcairn: “Why don’t you personally keep all necessary records of notes, letters, sketches, photographs of models, etc., together with a journal or diary, all bearing on the development of this work at Bryn Athyn, and then when the church is consecrated, publish a volume. . . . This would include everything from the first sketches to the consecration services, addresses, sermons, etc., and would form about as interesting a demonstration of the right way to do things as has occurred since the fall of Constantinople” (Ralph Adams Cram. Letter to Raymond Pitcairn. 20 August 1913. Glencairn Museum Archives, Bryn Athyn, Pa.). Pitcairn had asked Cram to become head architect of the Cathedral project in 1912, but within a few years serious artistic differences developed between the two men, and Cram was dismissed from the project in 1917.

 

Raymond Pitcairn, circa 1939, with his camera on the Glen Tonche tennis court. Glen Tonche, the Pitcairns' summer home in the Catskills, was one of his favorite spots for taking family photographs. Photograph courtesy of Jennifer Gardner.

 

Many of the photographs in the Glencairn collection document the lives of the Pitcairn children, and Raymond was always willing to share his keen interest in photography with them. He once took two of his sons on a trip through the eastern states to see and photograph the scenery: “Armed with camera and tripod they set out. They planned the trip ahead, making reservations at their various stopping places. . . . Raymond was used to taking his time about setting up the tripod, posing his subjects and focusing, but on this trip, the boys knew that they would never reach their destinations on time if they allowed him to be too deliberate each time they stopped for a picture. So they worked out a definite procedure when some subject for a picture was sighted. They would jump out of the car, set up the tripod, help to focus the camera, and time themselves to see how quickly it could be done. And before the trip ended, their father was proud of having set a record for his speed in taking a good picture!” (Jennie May Gaskill, Biography of Raymond Pitcairn, n.d., p. 205). Pitcairn’s third son, Michael, became an official US Army photographer during World War II, and later opened his own photography studio.

It is likely that Raymond Pitcairn took a large percentage of the historic photographs in Glencairn’s collection, but absolute certainty for any given photo is rarely possible. Raymond himself is often in the picture, but this does not preclude his involvement in composing the shot and arranging the lighting. Many of these previously unpublished historic photographs can be found in the new book, Images of America: The Bryn Athyn Historic District. This book normally sells for $21.99, but new and renewing members of Glencairn Museum will receive a copy free of charge (offer good until May 30, 2012). This offer applies to Individual ($30), Family ($40), and Frequent Visitor ($80) membership categories. More information about membership is available here. The authors’ royalties and a portion of profits will go toward the care of historic photographs in the archives of the Bryn Athyn Historic District.
 

A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.