By Annette Hinkle
Attics, barns and outbuildings are intriguing places for treasure hunters — especially if the are spaces that have been left to their own devices for a while.
So just imagine what can be found in the secret corners of a museum. Professional photographer Mallory Samson did — and in the attics, barns and outbuildings of the Southampton Historical Museum she uncovered a wealth of artifacts from bygone eras — objects that had been out of sight for years, both from the public and museum staff.
But these artifacts are forgotten no more. Many are now subjects in a series of photographs by Samson which she has assembled as wall-sized murals in “Extraordinarily Ordinary!” an exhibit currently on view at the museum’s Rogers Mansion.
Samson’s background is in magazine publishing. She worked for Condé Nast publications and was a pioneer in the art of magazine style wedding photography — shooting outdoors with natural light — which has since changed the way so many couples preserve their big day.
But four years ago when Samson and her husband moved to Southampton she wanted to get to know her new community, so she volunteered her photography skills to the Southampton Historical Museum where she began by taking photographs of the Sayre Barn to help promote fundraising efforts for its restoration.
“The barn was beautiful and fragile at the same time,” says Samson. “I fell in love with the barn, the museum and Southampton.”
As the Sayre Barn was being prepped for restoration, Samson photographed a collection of 100-year-old antique horse-show ribbons which were stored in the barn for years and moved as part of the renovation.
But the change in environmental conditions caused the fragile silk ribbons to literally disintegrate shortly after they were moved. Had it not been for Samson’s photographs, they would now be entirely lost to history.
“After I took the ribbon picture, the ribbons just went ‘poof,’ recalls Samson. “I realized I can really preserve history with photography. I had never thought of that.”
Then the museum’s director, Tom Edmonds, asked Samson if she would like a show.
“A show? That’s a dream any photographer would want. It was beyond a dream come true,” says Samson who decided the museum’s forgotten artifacts would make ideal subjects.
“Tom took me in all the buildings and every picture was taken at the Rogers Mansion property,” says Samson who photographed top hats, china, toys, tools, clothing and more using her professionally-trained eye.
“I really styled those pictures,” she confesses. “I was photographer, photo assistant, stylist and art director — a one man band all at once.”
While curating the artifacts was a major part of Samson’s mission, presenting those images in an entirely unique way was also important to the artist.
“I had an epiphany. I decided I don’t want to do framed pictures, I want to do something no one else has done,” she says. “I thought, ‘I want to see every part of every wall filled with the photographs.’”
As a result, the show features a collage of some 150 images from five inches to five feet covering the walls of the exhibit space in the Rogers Mansion. In order to figure out how to arrange the images, Samson first made scale models of the room.
“It was the most incredible challenge — the measuring, the precision, making sure it fit,” says Samson. “Everything was a learning curve — outside the photography.”
It was also important to Samson that all the objects be shot in natural daylight with no alterations — which means even the dust that covered many of the objects was left intact.
“We’re so surrounded by commercial photographs that are perfect and retouched,” she says. “I think the photos really show off the objects in a different way — the dust is there, the dust is part of the story.”
Samson sought to balance the energy of the show by shooting both masculine and feminine objects. There are images of vintage clothing, dolls and china along with walls filled with imagery of top hats, tools and toy trucks.
“I really did use my magazine and photography aesthetic which is very editorial,” she explains. “Some of the objects had to be huge – like the china — to take things out of context so you look at the objects differently.”
Samson also applied humor in spots. On the wall of doll portraits, for example, one doll has her back turned to the camera, and the museum’s collection of circus animal toys are shot on a red background with only portions of their forms in the frame.
“I put in a sense of humor in a way where I could. In January, the museum’s closed, there’s barely any heat and I was freezing the entire shoot. I had to amuse myself.”
But ultimately, Samson explains her goal with the work is to call attention to the area’s past by offering an alternative vision of it.
“I wanted the show to be a great show for families. It’s a great experience for kids to learn the social history of Southampton,” she says. “For tourists and people who live here and those here only in summer, they forget how amazing the history is. It adds so much depth to living here.”
“It’s so beautiful here for a reason,” she says. “It’s beautiful because of the history.”
The reception for “Extraordinarily Ordinary!” is this Saturday, June 15. 2013 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Southampton Historical Museum’s Rogers Mansion, 17 Meeting House Lane, Southampton. Admission is free and refreshments will be served. The show remains on view though August 2. Call 283-3494 for details.