For any artist, perhaps the ultimate test of bravery is to turn the lens or paintbrush upon oneself. For Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, who took this remarkable self-portrait by aiming her camera into her bedroom mirror and squeezing the shutter-release bulb in her hand, at left, this was an opportunity to depict not just who she was at that moment, but rather who she had been. Emmons had spent nearly half a century photographing rural scenes around her native Kingfield, often relying on elderly models and carefully selected settings to capture a way of life that might have belonged more to her mother's generation than her own.
Usually lugging the same 1904 Century five-by-seven-inch camera shown here, Emmons was particular to a fault when it came to her compositions, spending hours sprinkling feed so that chickens were pecking in the appropriate spot or else waiting for the sun to cast just the right shadows into a blacksmith's shop. She has been no less meticulous in composing this image, having taken advantage of geometric shapes — the arch of the mirror, at top, the angles of the tripod, at left, even the carefully arranged combs in the foreground — all perhaps presented as an homage to her father, a former schoolteacher.
Emmons, who became a widow at just forty, did not need to rely on her photography. Her brothers, F.E. and F.O. Stanley, having made their fortunes by manufacturing a dry plate photographic system and later the famed Stanley Steamer automobile, were able to support their sister both financially and by keeping her camera well stocked with negatives. Ironically, Netta, as she was known, did not return the favor by recording her siblings' inventions. Such a slight is no surprise, perhaps, as some believe she may have felt her brothers' automobiles were destroying the very history that she was recording.
In this, the last self-portrait taken shortly before her death in 1937, Emmons, who so identified herself as a photographer that she included her camera in most self-portraits, seems to have taken advantage of several props to reflect on her own past. While her cameo brooch, at center, and glass perfume jar, at lower right, would have been perfectly appropriate for women of the time, the elaborate embroidered lace blouse she wears seems more Victorian era than Depression. Although she wears contemporary eyeglasses, she has placed in focus on the dresser a pair of pince-nez spectacles, most popular during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Like the photographer herself, it seems, this remarkable portrait has captured more than just a single moment, but rather an entire lifetime.