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Through A Glass Negative, Darkly

Taylor’s soft-focus, sepia-colored photographs of tranquil domestic interiors were featured in an eight-page spread in Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman magazine.

A trove of 400 glass plate negatives found in the attic of an Indianapolis home in the 1980s resuscitated the name of a once-celebrated female photographer. In addition, the discovery illuminates life in the upper reaches of Indianapolis society around the turn of the last century.

The 6 ½ by 8 ½ glass plate negatives found in a home in the Herron-Morton Place neighborhood on the northside of Indianapolis were taken during the first decade of the 20th century by Mary Lyon Taylor. Born to a prosperous Wisconsin family in 1872, Mary Lyon had had some art training by the time of her marriage to Indianapolis businessman Edward Taylor in 1898.

But her photographic experience was limited to taking snapshots with a Kodak Brownie by 1906, when a decline in the family’s fortunes spurred Mary Taylor to set up a photography studio and darkroom at her North Pennsylvania Street address. Studying the pictures she found in art periodicals and at the nearby John Herron Art Institute, Taylor outfitted herself with supplies from the H. Lieber Company and set up her photographic portrait business.

Her two sons and close female friends providing her first subjects, Taylor quickly achieved national renown for her “pictorial” photographs, in the impressionistic style championed by Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secessionist group.

Taylor’s soft-focus, sepia-colored prints representing tranquil domestic interiors were featured in an eight-page spread in the November 1907 edition of Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman magazine, the preeminent organ of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Taylor’s pictures were also exhibited nationally as part of the fifth and sixth American Photographic Salons, which included a stop at Herron.

Taylor’s critical success was accompanied by numerous commissions, taking her into the homes of the Indianapolis elite, from James Whitcomb Riley and Mrs. Josiah K. Lilly, Sr., to Meredith Nicholson, whose children she photographed.

A year-long separation from her husband and temporary relocation in Minneapolis precipitated an abrupt end to Taylor’s photographic career in 1908. Nonetheless, three years later Taylor won a $500 prize in a Kodak advertising contest with one of her earlier, copyrighted shots. In later years, Taylor served as president of the Indianapolis Women’s Needlework Guild, wrote poetry and published music.

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