Last Thursday I had the privilege of representing Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) at the launch of “Mennonite Village Photography: Views from Manitoba 1890 – 1940” published by the Mennonite Historical Arts Committee (MHAC). The MHAC is committed to the preservation, publication, and exhibition of historic Mennonite art forms.
The book highlights the work of four Mennonite photographers and offers a rare glimpse of life in Mennonite villages in Manitoba between 1890 and 1940. Peter H. Klippenstein (Altbergthal) and Peter G. Hamm (Neubergthal) lived and practiced their craft on the former West Reserve and Johann E. Funk (Schoenwiese) and Heinrich D. Fast (Gruenfeld) were from the former East Reserve. Accompanied by four short essays about the lives and works of each photographer, the book features a selection of the work that each photographer left behind in either glass or film negatives stored in institutional and family archives. In the case of Peter H. Klippenstein and Peter G. Hamm, what is left of their work is housed in the collection at Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg. The work from Heinrich D. Fast is held in a private collection with his descendants. The Johann E. Funk glass negatives are part of the artefact collection at MHV.
The book launch coincided with the opening of the exhibit of the same name at Gallery in the Park in Altona. The exhibit displays a curated selection of photographs from the book, printed in breathtakingly large scale. The photos showcase the material culture, architecture, dress, style, and landscape of Mennonite village life, but what is most striking about the exhibit is how each photograph (many enlarged to be 8 feet wide) brought its subjects to life in astonishing detail. As Conrad Stoesz noted at the book launch, our view of the past is often portrayed as though it was lived in black and white, like the old photographs. We tend to see it as a simpler time when people were straight-forward, and life was not as complicated as it seems today. These photographs, however, show us Mennonite life in detailed complexity and bring the people and places captured in them into “full colour” for us to consider. Roland Sawatzky also commented that the photographs often raise more questions than they answer: Who were the people in them? What were they doing? And, most intriguingly, what were they thinking?
One of the best examples of this is the Johann E. Funk photo that was selected for the cover image of the book. In it, a woman stands with her hands at her sides, posing in front of a large textile mounted on the wall behind her. The photograph is full-length, so we see what the woman was wearing: a heavy skirt, long-sleeved blouse, and a large bow with long fringes tied across her chest, just below the high neckline of her blouse. In her right hand she clasps what looks like a handkerchief crumpled in her fist and on her left hand she wears a simple band on her ring finger. But as I stood in front of the photograph with the book and exhibit’s graphic designer, Anikó Szabó, we pondered the woman’s facial expression, which is the most intriguing aspect of the photo. On the woman’s mouth plays a bit of a smile, a bit of a smirk, and while her eyes seem perhaps a little shy, she is looking directly and somewhat frankly at the camera. Ultimately, Anikó commented, the committee chose this image as the cover for the book because the woman’s face is so hard to read and the photograph raises so many intriguing questions about the woman and the circumstances surrounding the photograph.
MHV has been excited to be part of this project and have the Johann E. Funk glass negatives from our collection featured in the book and exhibit. You can learn more about this unique project at mennonitehistoricarts.ca. Get your copy of “Mennonite Village Photography” at Village Books & Gifts at MHV. The Mennonite Village Photography exhibit is scheduled to come to MHV in fall of 2021.