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Historic Salem Woman Helped Define Photography As Art Over 100 Years Ago

She was especially known for her pictorial Dutch genre photographs that focused on women and children.

Myra Wiggins
Myra Wiggins (American, 1869-1956), Hunger ist der Beste Koch (Hunger is the Best Cook), ca. 1899, matte collodian print, collection of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University, Salem, Ore., Maribeth Collins Art Acquisition Fund, 2000.074.002.

(SALEM, Ore.) - A major exhibition of Myra Albert Wiggins’s (1869-1956) photographs and ephemera will open Feb. 14 and continue through April 26 in the Study Gallery and Print Study Center at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University.

"Myra Albert Wiggins: A Photographer's Life" has been organized by Professor Emeritus of Art History and Senior Faculty Curator, Roger Hull, and includes photographs and ephemera drawn from the museum and the Pacific Northwest Art and Artists Archive at the university.

Born and raised in Salem, Ore., Wiggins was a painter, poet and singer, as well as an instructor, essayist and speaker on art topics. But it was as a photographer that she established herself as an internationally recognized artist. From the late 1890s until 1910, her photographs were exhibited throughout the United States, as well as Paris, Vienna and London.

Wiggins attended Willamette University and Mills College, and in 1891 she began three years of study at the Art Students League in New York, where she received instruction from leading American painters William Merritt Chase, George DeForest Brush and Kenyon Cox. Her photographic interests prompted her to join the Society of Amateur Photographers of New York where she met and impressed a fellow member, Alfred Stieglitz, who was to become the most famous and influential photographer of the era.

She returned to Salem and in 1894 she married Frederick Wiggins. During the next decade and half, Wiggins continued to gain recognition. She was especially known for her touching and award-winning pictorial Dutch genre photographs that focused on women and children. Her work won numerous prizes, including cash awards and even a trip to Paris in 1900.

When Stieglitz established the famed and exclusive Photo-Secession in 1903, he selected Wiggins as an associate member. The group promoted the controversial and hotly debated idea that photography should be acknowledged as a legitimate form of fine art.

In 1907 Wiggins moved with her husband and daughter, Mildred (Benz), to Toppenish, Wash. and to Seattle in 1932. Following 1910, Wiggins shifted the bulk of her time and effort to painting. Her greatest success and legacy remains to be her work as a photographer in a pivotal time that defined the way the world viewed photography.

Two lectures accompany the exhibition. On Feb. 15 Carole Glauber, a teacher, curator and author of "Myra Wiggins: The Witch of Kodakery," will discuss the life and career of the photographer. On March 15 Roger Hull will explore the art historical and photographic references found in Wiggins’s work. Both lectures are free and open to the public and will be held in the Roger Hull Lecture Hall at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art beginning at 2 p.m. The exhibition also includes a complimentary brochure by Hull.

Financial support for the exhibition has been provided by grants from the City of Salem’s Transient Occupancy Tax funds and the Oregon Arts Commission, with additional support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


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