Kodachrome memories

Photographer created visual record of Mennonite family life

May 20, 2019 by and

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HARLEYSVILLE, Pa. — America’s love affair with 35mm slides ran from the late 1940s to the 1970s. Fortunate indeed are those stuck to Kodachrome, its colors not diminished by half a century of casual storage.

This 1953 photo of Guntz cousins is part of the Mennonite Heritage Center exhibit of selections from the color slides of Anna B. Guntz. — Mennonite Heritage Center

This 1953 photo of Guntz cousins is part of the Mennonite Heritage Center exhibit of selections from the color slides of Anna B. Guntz. — Mennonite Heritage Center

For decades, countless family gatherings were transfixed — or bored — by the marvel of color photographs projected on a screen. Returnees from trips proudly proved they had been to the Grand Canyon, stood under the redwoods or strolled Florida beaches in winter.

In comparison, there were few photos of family scenes at home, and many of these were posed.

By the end of the 20th century, the travel pictures had become dull and irrelevant, while the shots of everyday work and play accrued a growing fascination.

Ironically, many families have little to show of the domestic habits of their grandparents. Not so with the family of John and Lizzie Bean Guntz, farmers near Royersford in western Montgomery County, and parents of a daughter, Anna Elizabeth, born in 1913.

The Guntz farm, where Anna lived for most of her life, had belonged to her parents and her grandparents before that. They were a conservative Mennonite farming family, members of the Vincent congregation based across the Schuylkill River in Chester County. Anna found employment doing housekeeping in the Collegeville area, including for several upper-class families in town.

A family’s life unfolds

In the early 1950s, Anna Guntz bought an Argus C3 camera and began taking pictures on slides. What she lovingly recorded was the unfolding, transgenerational life of her extended family, transpiring simply around her on the home farm where she lived with her parents.

With no photographic training or strategy, this self-effacing and sensitive woman with no children of her own poured the love of an aunt into what grew into an endearing visual record of Mennonite family life in her community and time.

Adding to the appreciation of this treasure, the bounty of Guntz slides comes from a time when one had to buy film and pay to develop it. Instead of taking 40 digital shots and discarding 39, one might frugally allow oneself one or two exposures — with the hope, while waiting for the film to be processed and mailed back, that the subjects had not blinked.

It is remarkable, then, that of the several thousand slides Anna Guntz has left, more than 300 remain as iconic of the context of her life.

Asked how she had learned composition, she seemed indignant. Composition? What is that? “Why, these were my nieces and nephews!”

She leaves with us a celebration of life in a setting now almost strangely superseded but intimately, even lyrically, made available to viewers through her loving lens.

An exhibit of selections from the color slides of Anna B. Guntz, as well as family farm artifacts, is on display at the Mennonite Heritage Center until June 15.

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