A long-time resident of Berkeley, Calif., Thomas W. Tenney and his wife Margaret took up photography in a serious way in the 1950s, eventually becoming professionals. For over a decade beginning the mid-1960s, the Tenneys' summer vacations in New England became the occasion for photographing colonial and early national gravestones, culminating in a public exhibition of their work in 1972 at the Bolles Gallery in San Francisco.
The Tenney collection consists of several hundred scrupulously-documented images of gravestones in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and other New England states taken between 1966 and 1978. Selecting stones for "artistic rather than historical reasons," the Tenney's focused primarily on details of the carving and inscriptions.
The collection is open for research.
Background on Thomas W. and Margaret Tenney
Thomas Walker Tenney was born February 13, 1920 in Evanston, Illinois, the son of Jeanette Walker and Horace Kent Tenney, Jr., M.D. He was raised in Madison, Wisconsin and graduated from Williams College in 1941. Following his Navy service in World War II, he worked in New York City, New York, and Springfield, Massachusetts until 1950 when he moved with his young family to Berkeley, California to start a phonograph record and sound equipment store. He closed the store in 1964 to devote full time to photography.
In a brief autobiography for one of his photo shows, he said:
I was given a box camera at about age 10, and then a vest pocket Kodak at about age 12. When I was 15 I started using a Leica which I used continually until 1941. From about 1936 to 1940 I received help from a Madison photographer, Fritz Kaeser, and after graduation in June 1941, I went to work for him as general assistant until entering the Navy. Did darkroom work, portraits, architecture, and also worked on my own doing portraits, works of art, and some efforts at reportage.
After settling in California, I began photography again, after reading the Basic Photo series of Ansel Adams. In 1960 I began trying to arrange my business so my time would be more free for photography.
In September 1962, I was one of eight photographers shown at the San Francisco Museum of Art as the last segment of the summer-long series entitled "The Arts of San Francisco."
During the late 1960s I worked as a West Coast photographer for The New York Times, illustrating several articles for the Sunday Magazine, including articles on Joan Baez, Charles Schultz, and student activities at Cal Berkeley."
Margaret (Maggie) Whitney Klaw Tenney was born May 30, 1922 in New York City, the daughter of Alma Ash and Alonzo Klaw, and granddaughter of Antoinette Morris and Marc Klaw, noted New York theater impresario. She was educated at Friends Seminary in New York and graduated from Bennington College in 1942 with an emphasis on art and music. She married Thomas Tenney on September 2, 1944. After moving to Berkeley in 1950, she began attending graduate school at Mills College in Oakland, California, studying musical composition with Darius Milhaud. Always an inventive and experimental visual artist, she took up photography in the mid-1960s, concentrating on color imagery. After retiring from photography in the early 1980s, she developed an international trade in antiquarian books with an emphasis on cooking, household management, and etiquette. Margaret Tenney died on April 18, 2011.
Thomas and Maggie exhibited their photography work widely on the West Coast during the 1960s and 1970s. Over the course of those two decades, they made trips almost every year to New England to study and photograph gravestones. Together they carefully studied and analyzed the gravestone images they brought home after each of their trips. Thomas did the photography and Maggie did much of the visual analysis, using her skills as a visual artist to make comparisons between stones from various carvers and regions. Hundreds of markers from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont were catalogued, described, analyzed, and cross-referenced.
For a show of 38 gravestone prints at San Francisco's Bolles Gallery in 1972, Thomas described his work: "These are photographs of gravestones from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, dated from 1692 to 1808. In this small group of pictures, selected for artistic rather than historical reasons, I have tried to show the great individuality, along with certain traditional aspects, of this vigorous Colonial art form, almost the only sculpture to have survived from that period."
The Tenney Collection consists of 12 document boxes containing approximately 1800 black and white 8 x 10 photograph prints, 38 mounted exhibition 11 x 14 black and white prints, negatives, proof sheets, and cross-referenced, descriptive index cards. Although the prints and negatives are solely of gravestones, the proof sheets include other subjects of interest to Tenney -- popular culture, automobiles, advertising signs, etc. across the U.S.
Grave markers photographed are in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Cemetery names were occasionally recorded. Carver names include: Allen, Buckland, Bull, Codner, Collins, Cutler, Dwight, Foster, Geyer, Hempstead, Kimball, Lamson, Stevens, Manning, New, Park, Sikes, Soule, Young, and Zuricher. Death dates range from 1692 to 1808.
If a researcher is interested in certain towns, the 3 x 5 index cards could be used first to find Marker ID numbers, then the corresponding prints could be located using the inventory list. Researchers who are studying carvers would likely want to see the carver index cards first to correlate particular carvers with photographs of their work. Others may want to browse through the prints, then use the index cards to find additional details for certain markers.
The Collection is grouped into four series: Photographic prints (8 x 10), Exhibition prints (11 x 14), Proof Sheets and Negatives, and index cards.
Acquired from Thomas W. Tenney, August 2011, through the Association for Gravestone Studies.
Processed by Nancy Adgent, August 2011.
The Tenney Collection is part of the Association for Gravestone Studies Collections:
Cite as: Thomas W. and Margaret Tenney Photograph Collection (PH 045). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.