The BOOKPRESS September 2000

Marcham Moments


James McConkey

The Photographs of Frederick G. Marcham
Edited by John Marcham.
DeWitt Historical Society of Tompkins County, 2000.
112 pages. Softcover, $21.95; cloth, $29.95.

    Nobody is ever likely to surpass the record for longevity that Frederick Marcham set as a teacher at Cornell––or, for that matter, to exceed the length of his service as mayor of the Village of Cayuga Heights. Born in 1898 to working-class parents in Reading, England, he became a lecturer as well as a graduate student in history upon his arrival at Cornell in 1923. After receiving his doctoral degree in English history in 1926, he was appointed to the faculty and continued to teach until two months before his death––at age 94 in December 1992. So his Cornell teaching career spanned a remarkable sixty-nine years; and for thirty-two of those years he also served as mayor of his village. (There is a fine congruity in the fact that Marcham held a Goldwin Smith professorship at Cornell, for Goldwin Smith, though a member of a far more privileged English family, was also born in Reading. He too was a historian, one whose affection for Cornell, where he was a member of the faculty in the university’s early years, remained long after he left Ithaca.)
    That Fred Marcham was an accomplished photographer will surprise those who knew him primarily as scholar, teacher, or mayor. Even his son John, for years the editor of the Cornell alumni magazine and the editor of this book, was surprised by the variety and extent of the prints he found scattered among his father’s possessions. As is the case with other volumes published by the DeWitt Historical Society, The Photographs of Frederick G. Marcham is a handsome book, the pictures (they were selected and organized by graphic designer Phil Wilson) carefully reproduced. They include crowd scenes (in London and at Cornell athletic events) as well as pictures of English villages in which people are completely absent. And there are photographs in which individuals, many of them children, are the exclusive subject. (Two of these––one of a little girl, the other of a boy, both of them in Covent Garden, the London market––are particularly winning.) Marcham’s photographs of his own children and grandchildren also show his ability to gain his subjects’ trust. In one such picture, studious young John seems to be contemplating the pleasures and difficulties of his future profession as he surveys the upright wooden letters of the alphabet on the table before him.
    Many of the photographs collected here were taken during a trip to England that Marcham made in 1951; unlike the village scenes, in which the past is memorialized in the present, some of those of London clearly are intended to juxtapose the ruins of wartime bombing raids against enduring background symbols––the undamaged spire of a church, the intact walls of the Tower of London. Still, the photographs that most held my attention are, in addition to those of children in England and Ithaca, a pair of natural scenes taken in Tompkins County and some taken in Cornell’s Teagle Hall and at other indoor pools. In the pool scenes, divers are caught as they are suspended in air, apparently freed from gravity and limited only by the ceilings they almost touch; these are photographs in which physical grace would seem ethereal, were not the shadows of the divers outlined clearly on walls or ceiling. Substance and spirit are connected in these remarkable photographs, which possess the quality of a liberating dream.
    Because of its scope, this book doesn’t have the specific historical interest for local residents that, for example, the immediate predecessor of this volume––Farmboy, also edited by John Marcham––does. Instead, it captures much of the spirit of the person who put these images on film, a professional historian with a lifelong interest in art, other humans, and the natural world. John tells us, in the acknowledgments at the end of this collection, that he felt too subjectively involved, as Fred Marcham’s son, to give an unbiased and detailed account of his father’s life and work; instead, he provides a brief biography which (or so I assume) aspires to some of that father’s historical objectivity. In his opening paragraph, John tells us that Fred was born "in one of the poorest streets of Reading, an industrial city," and that his mother was a barmaid, his father a brewery laborer. Particularly in England, such a background could limit one’s possibilities, then probably more than at present; in addition, while still a young man, he was diagnosed as having a "weak heart." To Fred, though, such handicaps apparently were a spur.
    How he managed to overcome them all––winning a scholarship to an elite "public" school and then gaining admission to Oxford, meanwhile engaging in activities that strengthened his heart and imbued him with a love for athletics and outdoor adventures––probably makes for a more moving story, as recounted in John’s spare words, than it would have been in a more embellished form. At Cornell, Fred taught boxing as well as history; John tells us that "as a faculty member and an elected faculty trustee, his closest friends were men he fished with, a mechanic who took care of his car, coaches he met while working out at the campus gym––men of nonacademic backgrounds closer to people he had grown up with in England."
    It strikes me as a good thing that Fred Marcham, through his life in Ithaca and now through this book, has become an integral part of our local history.

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James McConkey is the author of several novels and memoirs.

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