Marblehead Museum brings Fred Litchman’s photographs to life

A new exhibit at the Marblehead Museum immerses visitors in historic Marblehead through the photographs of prolific local photographer Fred W. Litchman.

Associate Director of the Marblehead Museum Jarrett Zeman stands in the first floor gallery space where the exhibition that he curated —  ‘Marblehead Snapshots: The World of Fred Litchman’ — hangs until late December. The project took Zeman about 12 months to pull together. CURRENT / WILLIAM J. DOWD

“Marblehead Snapshots: The World of Fred Litchman” showcases 55 photographs Litchman took between the 1890s and World War I. The images provide an intimate, candid look at daily life during this period, drawn from the museum’s collection of over 3,000 Litchman photos.

“We wanted to give people a sense of what it was like at a time when having visual memories of your daily life was a novel idea,” said Marblehead Museum Associate Director Jarrett Zeman, who spent nearly 12 months curating the exhibition.  

The photographs highlight Litchman’s focus on capturing Marblehead residents going about their daily business, whether walking down the street, working or relaxing.

“He loved documenting people in their daily lives,” Zeman explained. “You see folks working, playing, spending time with family and friends.”

This approach produced photographs that feel surprisingly modern to our Instagram-accustomed eyes. A shot of two young girls making silly faces at the camera could easily be a casual smartphone snap.

“Despite being taken over a century ago, many of these candid snapshots would look right at home on a 21st-century social media feed,” Zeman said. Many can be found thumbing through the museum’s Facebook and Instagram feeds.  

A group of children stand knee-deep in the harbor with a drenched adult chaperone beside them in 1899. COURTESY PHOTOS / FRED LITCHMAN VIA MARBLEHEAD MUSEUM COLLECTION

The exhibit’s interactive features help bring the photographs and Litchman’s world to life. Visitors can scan QR codes to pull up related audio and video, like a Thomas Edison film showing the lighting tower featured in Litchman’s nighttime shot of the 1901 Buffalo Pan-American Exposition.

A standout is the recreation of Litchman’s desk, containing artifacts that provide insight into his work and role in the community. Telegrams, train schedules and other items date to 1898, when Litchman worked as an assistant photographer for the Boston & Maine Railroad.

“It was part of how he learned his craft,” Zeman explained. “He was apprenticed to the photographer Henry Peabody and traveled all over New England photographing for the railroad.”

Five friends make funny faces from behind a fence, somewhere on the streets of Marblehead.

Visitors can look at  photos Litchman took during the six-month project and read an excerpt of the book he wrote about his experiences, “A Year on Car 159.” The desk also contains souvenirs from Litchman’s travels and items from his involvement with local groups and clubs.

“We want to give people a sense of who Fred was as a person,” Zeman said. “He was a very active member of the Marblehead community.”

Selecting which photographs to include in the exhibit took considerable care. With over 3,000 images to choose from, Zeman used a randomized sample of 1,000 photos to identify common themes and genres.

The final selections showcase the variety of Litchman’s work, from street scenes and days at the beach to landscapes documenting Marblehead’s natural beauty and development.

“Each photograph represents a different theme that appears frequently throughout the Litchman collection,” Zeman said.

Despite his prolific output, Litchman had to work much harder than today’s photographers to capture his images. One display compares the conveniently compact and portable Kodak box camera, introduced in 1888, with the bulky glass plate view camera Litchman used.

Two women relaxing by the water look at Fred Litchman as he snaps this Marblehead Harbor photo from Crocker Park in 1899.

“It shows people how taking a photograph in the Victorian era was a lot more difficult and time consuming than just tapping your iPhone,” Zeman said.

By contrast, modern technology lets people snap endless photos that they can immediately review, edit and share online. Zeman views this as diminishing the gravitas and appreciation of photography, but he said believes Litchman’s work and approach resonates across the ages.

“There are a lot of small towns that have a Fred Litchman – local photographers who documented daily life,” Zeman said. “But his photographs show a warm-hearted, whimsical and optimistic people. They give you a different view of Victorians.”

Litchman was born in Marblehead in 1864 and lived there his entire life. The son of Canadian immigrants, he gained photographic skills through apprenticeships before opening his own studio on State Street.

Litchman was a prominent figure in the community, involved in local organizations and a town assessor for 40 years. He frequently displayed his photos at public lectures in venues like Abbot Hall and Lyceum Hall.

His most frequent photographic subject was his wife, Cora Mason, whom he married in 1902. She was a bookkeeper at a Marblehead shoe factory.

Two men in 1899 stand underneath the sign for the Liberty Hose volunteer fire company, which met on the first floor of the townhouse, while children sit next to the town’s central water pump.

“As a result of their long relationship, she is the most photographed person in Victorian Marblehead,” Zeman said. “He took pictures of her before and after their marriage. She’s featured throughout the exhibit.”

“Marblehead Snapshots: The World of Fred Litchman” runs through the end of December. An accompanying exhibit book containing 138 Litchman images will be available next month.

Marblehead Museum is at 170 Washington St.

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