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Santa Barbara Historical Museum Shows a Different Face with Portraits in Paradise

Work of the Carolyn and Edwin Gledhill photography team captures much more than a snapshot in time

Eighteenth century British writer Edmund Burke once wrote, “People will not look forward to posterity who will not look backward to their ancestry.”

The latest exhibition at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, entitled “Portraits in Paradise: The Photography of Carolyn and Edwin Gledhill, 1906-1944,” certainly echoes Burke’s sentiment. The exhibition, which runs through June 10, features 38 portraits of culturally and socially influential figures from Santa Barbara’s storied past, photographed by two people who helped mold this community into a nationally recognized Mecca of the arts more than a century ago.

In 1907, the recently married Carolyn and Edwin Gledhill opened their first portrait studio on Chapala Street, one block from the luxurious oceanfront Potter Hotel, a destination for wealthy and prominent visitors at the time. During an era of extensive industrial growth and expansion for many burgeoning California cities, Santa Barbarans instead made the collective choice to focus on the city’s architecture, civic value and pageantry, making it an ideal haven for a diverse and growing community of artists and professionals. This unique social climate allowed the Gledhills access to the cultural elite, both visitors and residents alike, from which they chose the subjects of their portraits.

The Gledhills were fairly radical for their time, which was reflected both in their craft and in their personal life. At the time of their marriage, Edwin was only 19, while Carolyn was already in her 30s.This age disparity, which might be viewed as unorthodox today, was borderline scandalous in the early 20th century.

According to Gabriel Ramirez-Ortiz, the museum’s curator of collections, the nontraditional nature of the Gledhills’ relationship extended to their working life.

“This exhibition was first organized around the premise that Edwin Gledhill was the main photographer in this team,” Ramirez-Ortiz said. “In actuality, Carolyn was the professional photographer in the studio.”

In fact, Edwin would guide the subject on how to pose, as well as try to elicit the proper reaction from the subject, and when the arrangement was to her liking, Carolyn would release the shutter on the camera. Guest curator Barbara Vilander explained that such collaboration was quite uncommon at the time.

“Other husband-and-wife photographic teams had worked together, but their roles were typically divided between photographer and printer or photographer and subject,” Verlander said. “The Gledhills worked in aesthetic and technical concert.”

Carolyn Gledhill also showed a propensity for early feminism in her work. Before her untimely death in 1935, she would pose many of her female subjects in subtly defiant ways, reflecting the fundamental shift in the paradigm of women’s roles in America during the 1920s.

“One of the most significant things that has come out of us producing this exhibition is that, during the research, it was really proven that the way Carolyn would pose women in particular, she really tried to show them as being empowered,” said Dacia Harwood, the museum’s media consultant. “That’s something that a lot of the women who visit the exhibition have found particularly fascinating.”

Following Carolyn’s death, Edwin continued his work as a photographer and preservationist of Santa Barbara’s historic resources; he even served for many years as the executive director of the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, helping build it into the cultural institution it is today.

A few of the exhibit’s more famous portraits, which were gathered from private collectors, the University Art Museum-UCSB and the historical museum’s own collection, are of William Boeing, founder of Boeing Aircraft Co.; Sarah Fleischmann of the Fleischmann’s Yeast Co. family; Mexican muralist Diego Rivera; and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Upton Sinclair.

Portraits in Paradise comes on the heels of another ultra successful exhibition that ended last month. “Guiding Lights: Teachers at the Santa Barbara School of the Arts” received national recognition when it was featured on the cover of American Art Review magazine.

Ramirez-Ortiz hopes that Portraits in Paradise will prove to be another big success for the historical museum, and believes, as Burke did, that it is important for us to know where we came from, both as individuals, and as a community.

“I think a great thing about this exhibition is that it puts a face to some of the well-known names of Santa Barbara,” he said. “Many of these individuals helped to build the foundations for many of Santa Barbara’s most important institutions today.”

“Portraits in Paradise: The Photography of Carolyn and Edwin Gledhill, 1906-1944” is on exhibit at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, 136 E. De la Guerra St., through June 10. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Entry is free but donations are accepted. Click here for more information.

— Kevin McFadden is a Noozhawk contributor.

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