Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Spring 1993 (Vol. 41, No. 1), p. 7-9
The son of a minister and a dressmaker left behind a precious photographic legacy of life on Nantucket.
Maurice W. Boyer, Nantucket Photographer
By Dorothy Boyer Gornick
The photographer freezes time instantaneously. His tools are the cameras and film available in his day. Each photograph that results is influenced not only by its creator and the quality of his tools, but by the interpretations of its viewers, contemporary and future. These considerations help us to focus on my father, Nantucket photographer Maurice Weimar Boyer, and on his extensive work.
The son of Reverend Levi Weimar and Ellen (Porter) Boyer, he was born in Fiskdale, Massachusetts, on September 20, 1875. He came to Nantucket at the age of ten months when his father became rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church. In 1880 the family moved to Ashtabula, Ohio, and lived there until his parents separated in 1885.
He returned to Nantucket with his mother and grandmother, Mehitabel Porter, both dressmakers. They lived on the second floor of an apartment on Centre Street near the Methodist Church. His first camera was one of the Harvard instruments offered by the Youth's Companion magazine in about 1890. Virtually nothing but a tin box, painted black, it was a queer little outfit with a lens in the front, but without a finder or a diaphragm.
Father started to learn the printer's trade in the office of the Nantucket Journal, but soon found that he was more interested in the camera than the printing press. He became a protege of Henry S. Wyer, who specialized in portraits, landscapes, postcards, and photographs of island houses taken just before the turn of the century. He taught his young assistant such techniques as retouching portraits, adding clouds or pictorial views, and removing unwanted subjects by cropping or by airbrush.
Father then went for more formal training in Boston where he was apprenticed to the Ruby French Company. When he returned to Nantucket, he rented the Main Street studio formerly occupied by Josiah F. Freeman, and later by Edwin B. Robinson, both photographers.
On October 8, 1906, Maurice W. Boyer married Zetta Folger Smith, daughter of William Henry Harrison and Lydia (Folger) Smith. My brother Sherwin was born on August 12, 1907, I on September 1, 1911. We lived in the former "Kite House" up on Vestal Street where we had five acres of land. At the time my parents purchased it, the location was considered "out of town."
My father steadily enlarged his business. He photographed many island events, and his artistic skill developed over the years. On September 24, 1920, he gave up the Main Street studio and purchased from Miss Cora Stevens, the Sunshine Shop, a gift and souvenir store on Federal Street, and built an addition behind it. His portrait work was excellent, and he was adept at photographing his subjects in natural poses. He had various props as well as suitable scenes painted on canvas that could be unrolled to provide background.
His portraits of children were a specialty. Their favorite prop was his glass paperweight, which had a paper turtle with movable legs embedded in it; they loved to hold it while he took their picture. His popularity with young people, enhanced by the proximity of his studio across the street from St. Mary's Church, probably helped to corner the market in confirmation pictures. He also took annual photographs of each class at the Academy Hill School, the South School, and the 'Sconset School. The students considered "picture-taking day" a big event.
Father photographed and framed many island scenes. He enlarged his pictures and tinted them with watercolors. His popular postcards of the island's picturesque spots were displayed in racks in all the hotels and boarding houses. When my brother and I were in our teens, it was our job during the summer to go to all these places twice a week to refill the racks. I can recall the thrill of going to the Sea Cliff Inn to do this and to mingle with the "summer people."
In 1926 Maurice W. Boyer took the first aerial pictures of the whole island for the Island Service Company president, Henry Lang. This set of sixteen large shots was received with great interest. They can be seen today at the Nantucket Historical Association's Research Center in the Peter Foulger Museum.
That same year he took a course at Columbia University in New York and became the first X-ray technician at Nantucket Cottage Hospital, then on West Chester Street. In order to concentrate full time on his studio work and X-ray appointments, he sold the Sunshine Shop to Mr. and Mrs. Frank Oddo in 1929. Evidence that he ran the hospital's department economically appears December 4, 1931, when he obtained authorization from the board of trustees to purchase a reserve X-ray bulb.
Although my father was not a Nantucketer by birth, he considered himself one, and was keenly interested in all community activities. My parents first met when they both sang in the choir at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, and over the years they continued to be active in the parish. In 1909 Father was Master of Union Lodge, F. & A. M., and served forty years as its treasurer.
Later he was Worthy Patron and my mother was Worthy Matron of Sherburne Chapter, No. 182, Order of the Eastern Star. He was one of the last members of the old-time Board of Firewardens, and he served as assistant chief of the Nantucket Fire Department from 1914 to 1920. He was a member of the School Committee from 1916 through 1928.
After my father died on July 15, 1938, all his photographic equipment was sold to the Ruby French Company. My brother Sherwin, a locksmith and a lightship-bas-ketmaker, took over the studio to continue the framing work.
Maurice W. Boyer left a photographic legacy of Nantucket portraits, social rites, events, celebrations, buildings, streetscapes, scenery, farms, businesses, vehicles, and local curiosities. The first third of twentieth-century Nantucket is well documented by his work.