Small Town Photographer's Camera
Every town has its official unofficial photographer. This person can always been seen with camera in hand at ball games, weddings, and community events. In the early 20th century, the Kansas town of Valley Falls had a most unlikely photographer—a woman. Alice Gardiner Sennrich was a painter, businesswoman, and, most importantly, a photographer. Alice left a visual legacy of the town where she grew up.
Not much is known about Sennrich's early years or when she first picked up a camera. She was born in the small town of Winchester to Thomas and Mattie Gardiner in 1878, a few years before the golden age of photography. In 1880, the family moved to Valley Falls, where Thomas began publishing the Vindicator newspaper. Alice took her camera everywhere in Valley Falls, capturing baseball teams, buildings, and people. Like her male counterpart and contemporary, J.J Pennell of Junction City, Alice documented the evolution of a place.
Photography was a rapidly changing field at the turn of the 20th century. Innovations relating to processing glass plate negatives made photography more portable and less hazardous to the photographer's health. Nonetheless, it was a daunting process going from glass-plate negative to printed image. With a lack of photography training schools in the area, Sennerich most likely taught herself how to use a camera and print images by reading books and magazines on the subject. She may also have learned about photography from her father, a newspaper owner.
Women's Changing Roles
Women's roles also were changing in the early 1900s. It became easier and more socially acceptable for females to work as commercial photographers. Women who decided not to marry usually supported themselves as teachers or by working in the domestic trades. Sennrich chose another path. She turned her passion for photography into a fledging business by purchasing the studios of C.S. Edington in 1902. She continued to photograph typical scenes of small-town life in Kansas into the 1930s.
To continually learn and refine her skills, Sennrich became a member of the Photographers Association of Kansas (PAK), and was active on committees within the organization. Women had engaged at all levels of PAK since its founding. The annual convention gave members an opportunity to "get new ideas from masters in the business," as well as sound business advice such as not being "bashful for charging plenty" for their images. In 1909, Sennrich was awarded first prize medals at PAK's annual convention in Kansas City. She also received recognition from the National Association of Photographers by having her work displayed publicly three times.
Alice married John Sennrich at the age of 37. John was a carpenter, painter, and paperhanger who was a few years Alice's junior. The couple had no children. Alice continued to own and operate her photography business throughout their 53-year marriage.
Sennrich's career had already ended when she began to lose her eyesight in the 1950s. In 1957, she donated 140 items from her studio--including this camera--to the Kansas Museum of History. Within a year, Alice was totally blind. She and John both moved to a nursing home in Valley Falls. She died in 1968.
When Alice moved into the nursing home, the final disposition of her household's contents was being determined when long time neighbor, Dale Irwin, noticed many of her glass-plate negatives in the trash. Irwin rescued the plates and donated them to the Kansas Historical Society in 1964. The plates reside in the State Archives.
Entry: Small Town Photographer's Camera
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: October 2009
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.