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Massengills' portraits, 'Three for a Dime.'

click to enlarge DIME PORTRAITS: A toddler posed in the Massengills' trailer studio.
  • DIME PORTRAITS: A toddler posed in the Massengills' trailer studio.

The Massengill family of Independence County seems to have been as happy as Heber Springs' Disfarmer was sour. For the Massengills, babies smiled, daddies mugged, toddlers hugged chickens, young women vamped. Theirs is a merrier sort of portrait than those American Gothic types that Disfarmer produced.

That might be because the photographs were, as the exhibit title explains, sold three for a dime by the Massengills, using cameras of their own making.

The reason we might want to go to "Making Pictures: Three for a Dime" at the Arkansas Studies Institute, besides the pleasure we get in seeing in these little 1 ½ by 2 inch prints, the 1930s variant of ourselves, is the story of their making, a story brought to light by Hendrix College art professor Maxine Payne.

Jim and Mancy Massengill came to Arkansas in the 1920s, eventually moving to Independence County. They farmed and raised chickens. One day, Mancy Massengill saw people getting their pictures made in a photo booth in a dime store, copied down the brand of the lens, sold some chickens to buy one, and launched the family's weekend itinerant photo business. Jim Massengill built the camera body and a mobile photo booth — a trailer built on an old car chassis that they hauled behind their truck. After a time their sons Lance and Laurence and daughters-in-law joined in. The Massengills traveled and made pictures (some in North Carolina) between 1937 and 1941, using a direct-positive technique that allowed them to print the pictures quickly.

Payne is herself a photographer and installation artist who focuses on the rural — a man with a dead deer in the bed of his truck, a woman on a farm, a young girl in a garden (naked a la Sally Mann's portrait of her daughter) — shot with cameras similarly out of step with today's technology. She knew of the Massengills through her grandfather, and several years ago acquired some 700 Massengill photos, some of which she has put in a limited-edition book, also titled "Making Pictures: Three for a Dime." Included in Payne's book are Thelma Bullard Massengill's diary, where the young bride of Lawrence Massengill describes their life, both the good days (when they made $11.30) and the bad (when she began to miscarry).

The Massengills put pictures on a board outside the trailer to bring in business. Customers were shot sitting on a stool about two feet from the camera lens. Evelyn Ritter Massengill (Lance Massengill's wife) writes in an essay for the exhibit, "We would pull into a little town on Friday night usually. Lance would find a good spot to park and would pay someone to let him plug in the electricity, for lights."

People are enjoying themselves in these three-for-a-dime portraits. Lance Massengill was in front of the camera, it appears, as often as he was behind it; he appears winking, or with what looks like a roller in his hair, or grinning from behind bars with a pal. A little boy holds tight to a hen, a baby wears big wax lips, a couple hug their baby. Sometimes the backdrop is an almost carelessly hung floral-print curtain or a primitive landscape, sometimes not. The women have their hair in slick curls and wear red lipstick and cotton dresses; the men have on fedoras or open-collared shirts. This is part of the appeal of these shots, some of them hand-tinted (for a dime more): their old-fashioned look.

But knowing how these little pictures were made elevates their exhibit from nostalgic trip through a family photo album to a bit of Arkansas history, about how one resourceful family made ends meet.

The show continues in the Concordia Hall gallery through Dec. 10.

Two new exhibits open for Third Friday Argenta ArtWalk Sept. 17: Impressionist painter Barry Thomas is showing landscapes at Greg Thompson Gallery, 429 Main St., and Rene Hein is showing her paintings at Ketz Gallery, 705 Main St. Also happening at the 5-8 p.m. event: The "Egg Lady" Lynn Sudderth will talk about her work at the Laman Library's Argenta branch, 506 Main St., and there will be arts and crafts and blue-dog face-painting at the Thea Foundation, 401 Main. Thea will be selling raffle tickets for a signed George Rodrigue silkscreen featuring one of his blue dogs; they're $5 for 1 or $20 for four and all proceeds benefit Thea's art programs. Go for it.

Other Third Friday sites include Argenta Bead, Starving Artist and the Gathering of Artists, independents who show on Main Street.

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