Faint, sentimental notes of Nat King Cole singing “It’s Only a Paper Moon” filtered down as I walked through two galleries on the second floor of the Lyman Allyn Art Museum. Other singers, including Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, followed with their versions of the 1930s tune.
The exhibit itself, curated mostly by Connecticut College students enrolled in Professor Christopher Steiner’s Museum Studies Certificate Program, is aptly titled “It’s Only a Paper Moon: Souvenir Photography in America, 1870-1950.” These palm-sized photographs – numbering over 425 – draw from the private collection of the professor of Art History & Anthropology himself. They depict everyone from infants to fun-loving teenage boys posing with an array of items featuring taxidermy alligators, 2D airplanes, fake orange trees, and yes – paper moons.
“The images were printed on penny postcards and were popular among travelers and tourists, who would then ship the photos to family and friends,” noted Steiner. Photo studios had become increasingly common and sought-after attractions at carnivals and state fairs after the invention of photography in the mid 1800s. The iconic crescent “paper moon” with a background of stars or clouds was the most prevalent set design.
Connecticut College has collaborated with the museum for several years now, allowing faculty from the Department of Art History to curate and display their projects, most often with the help of students. For example, last year Professor Karen Gonzalez Rice invited her students to help her put together an exhibit on the relationship between text and image in modern art.
“For my collaborative project I proposed an exhibition on souvenirs and memory. At the time, I wasn’t exactly sure what form the exhibit would take,” admitted Steiner. “But by the end of last year, I had decided to focus the show on souvenir photography… I have been collecting “paper moon” photographs (as well as other forms of souvenir photography) for about 6 years now. The collection grew out of my teaching interests in vernacular and outsider art.”
Most of the undergraduates who worked with Steiner on “It’s Only a Paper Moon” are pursuing the Museum Studies Certificate, while others were simply passionate to partake in the project. Even though the task required a tremendous amount of work planning, framing and mounting almost 500 photographs, Steiner believed “this was a terrific opportunity for the students who worked with me on the exhibition. One of the great benefits of having access to the Lyman Allyn Art Museum on the southern edge of our campus is that students can gain firsthand experiences in museum work, object handling and exhibition installation.”
Julie Blazar ’20 enjoyed visiting the exhibit as well, commenting: “I liked how some of the photos looked fake and some of them could have been real. I was thinking about why people would pose in these photos with the moon and not just take a conventional photograph. I think that adding the prop adds an element of fun to the photo and that it allows the person in the photo to customize their photo.”
The Lyman Allyn Art Museum even provides an adjacent “paper moon” photo booth where visitors can select a hat or feather boa and pose like the hundreds of strangers in the snapshots of the past. “We know little or nothing about the photographers or the subjects in their photographs, but each image stands as a powerful aesthetic statement about the values and identities of “average” Americans,” said Steiner. He was thrilled that museum-goers could “experience in a very real way the mood and sentiments that are captured in the hundreds of historical photographs featured in the exhibition.”
“It is only a paper moon, sailing over a cardboard sea, but it wouldn’t be make believe, if you believed in me…” trailed after me and my friend as we walked out of the “paper moon” photo booth and away from the faces of the past we attempted to imitate, toting our own souvenir photographs and memories.