Registration Day: the student portrait in context, an exhibition of the Elaine Mayes’ portraits

-by Mia Karnofsky

Elaine Mayes (b. 1936) is a photographer who taught at Hampshire College from 1971 to 1981. Mayes originally trained as a painter, then began studying photography at San Francisco Art Institute (then called The California School of Fine Arts), where the first fine art photography department had been founded by Ansel Adams in 1945. She was taught by Minor White and other well-known photographers before going on to produce some of the most widely circulated images of the Haight-Ashbury district. Mayes joined Jerome Liebling on Hampshire’s founding faculty after teaching at the University of Minnesota. She was the first female photography professor in the country. Her work is held in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

The Elaine Mayes Photography Collection at Hampshire College includes two series: Cole Science Center Offices and Registration Day Portraits. Cole Science Center Offices consists of 31 black-and-white photographs taken during Fall Colloquy in September 1971. The Registration Day series consists of hand-colored black-and-white portraits of 33 people who came into Mayes’ office for a meeting on registration day in 1973. She took the pictures to document the already overwhelming number of students interested in learning photography, and draw attention to the need for more support and resources for the department.

These portraits include many of Mayes’ students as well as several colleagues in the burgeoning film and photography department at Hampshire. The series is
consistent in form: each portrait features the subject facing the camera seated in an armchair, dressed true to the era. The photos have been colorized by hand using oil pencils, giving them a dimensionality evocative of late daguerreotypes, which used this method before the invention of color photography. Upon closer and longer looking, details emerge that gives the series both continuity and richness: exposure settings written in chalk next to a New York City phone number, a wishbone on the table by the typewriter, and a drying strip of film hanging near the door frame, the development of which Mayes said she used to put the photos in chronological order.

The foreground changes almost as frequently as the occupant of the chair, each subject bringing their own bags, notebooks, portfolios, and photography equipment. Every person takes up space in the chair in a slightly different way, although they all look equally engaged with the camera. This may very well be the result of the method Mayes used to make the portraits- she would instruct her subject to take a deep breath and project his or her image onto the film while exhaling. At this moment, Mayes would take the photograph.

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