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'The House of Light'

The Preller Collection comes to the Historic Arkansas Museum.

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DOCKED: The Prellers traveled up the White River in their second photography studio/houseboat and landed in Augusta. Their home there included Gayne Preller's studio, where she made portraits, including brooch photos like the one at left. - COURTESY HISTORIC ARKANSAS MUSEUM
  • Courtesy Historic Arkansas Museum
  • DOCKED: The Prellers traveled up the White River in their second photography studio/houseboat and landed in Augusta. Their home there included Gayne Preller's studio, where she made portraits, including brooch photos like the one at left.

You won't find anything about Hugo and Gayne Preller in Wikipedia or online histories. You would think that a couple who made their living piloting a floating photography studio down the Mississippi and up the White rivers at the turn of the 20th century, making thousands of photographs of the landscape and its people, would merit a mention in some online account.

As it turns out, the story of this unusual couple — he an immigrant artist, gunsmith and watchmaker, she perhaps the first woman commercial photographer in Arkansas — has been known to only a few folks outside Augusta and Woodruff County. One of them is White River photographer Chris Engholm, who learned about the Prellers in 2013 and set about preserving the family's collection of photographs. Thanks to Engholm, the Prellers will travel again, this time up the Arkansas to the Historic Arkansas Museum, which opens "Hugo and Gayne Preller: The House of Light" on April 8.

The Preller Collection exhibition includes original photographs by both Hugo and Gayne — his outdoors, hers the studio shots; photo brooches that may have been made as memorials for the dead; paintings on washboard mussel shells by Hugo Preller; a model of the Prellers' houseboat studio made by the late Little Rock photographer Greer Lile; and other artifacts.

Hugo Preller, born in 1865 in Germany, came to the United States when he was 17, traveling in steerage on the S.S. Spain. Because he'd had a religious vision as a child — he saw tongues of flame emerge from under the ice of a frozen lake and burn the sky — he became a circuit rider for the Methodist Episcopal Church. That took him to Kentucky, where he met and married Gayne in 1892; he was 27, she was 16.

Carey Voss, assistant curator at HAM, described the Prellers as "early Bohemians" whose sense of adventure launched them down the Mississippi River in 1898 to begin their remarkable lives.

Gayne operated the floating photography studio, docking for a couple of years at the mouth of the Wolf River near Memphis and weeks at other river towns. Hugo hunted and found work repairing guns and watches. He took outdoor photographs; she did the indoor portraits.

"Money is none" in Arkansas, Hugo wrote Gayne while on an exploratory trip downriver from Memphis, but they would be able to "live off the fat of the land." They would survive together, he said, even if "we have to live like Gypsies."

HUNTING IN THE DELTA WOODS: A photograph by Hugo Preller. - COURTESY HISTORIC ARKANSAS MUSEUM
  • Courtesy Historic Arkansas Museum
  • HUNTING IN THE DELTA WOODS: A photograph by Hugo Preller.

In 1908, the Prellers began the trip up the White River to Augusta, where they settled in 1910. Here they built what the family calls the House of Doors — made entirely from doors ordered from Sears — and it was where they lived and worked until their deaths many years later. Their photographs make up the largest record of the era in the Arkansas Delta, Engholm believes.

Once in Augusta, Hugo Preller was commissioned to both paint and make photographs of the town's commerce and leaders. Gayne ran the Preller Photography studio out of the House of Doors. She also ran a variety store that her granddaughter, Gayne Preller Schmidt, called a "curiosity shop."

That thousands of photographs made by the Prellers survive can be credited to Schmidt.

It was a painting on a mussel shell that started Engholm on his journey to preserve the Preller Collection.

Gayne Preller died in 1958. More than a half century later, Engholm, who had been paddling the White, visited the Lower White River Museum in Des Arc and it was there he saw Hugo Preller's painting of a button factory in DeValls Bluff done on the large washboard shell. Intrigued, Engholm asked the museum director about Preller and learned there were still Prellers in Augusta. He canoed to Augusta.

"I'd been on the river three or four days and I looked like Nanook of the North," Engholm said, when he tracked down Schmidt at her dressmaker's shop in Augusta. It took a bit to earn her trust — an earlier photographer had digitized Preller photographs without permission and sold them. He asked if she had any of her grandparents' photographs. "They're here somewhere," Schmidt said. They were in dusty boxes, an attic trunk, loaned to a friend. In all, Schmidt and Engholm found some 2,500 photographs.

The photos are not in the best condition — many are foxed, many are faded, many are torn. Some date to the 19th century, when the Prellers were in Kentucky. There are photographs of steamboat passengers; two boys by the White, in straw hats and rolled up overalls, holding their catch of bullfrogs; a picture of a hunter, a string of dead squirrels around his waist, a slain fawn at his feet. The Prellers aboard their first boat, equipped with sails, the wooden sides painted "Photography Copying Enlarging Artistic Painting"; also the Prellers and extended family beside the houseboat years later.

TURN OF THE CENTURY: Gayne Preller made many portraits of African Americans; her granddaughter says "she had just one door" to the studio in Augusta.
  • TURN OF THE CENTURY: Gayne Preller made many portraits of African Americans; her granddaughter says "she had just one door" to the studio in Augusta.

The Prellers were not Disfarmer afloat. Until late in her career, Gayne posed her subjects against elaborately painted backdrops and with props; a chair she used will be in the exhibition. Mike Disfarmer, who didn't begin taking pictures until 1930, only used a plain white background. Too, Disfarmer didn't much like people. Gayne Preller, on the other hand, was likely more engaged with her subjects; Engholm thinks she was trying to "bring out their personal idiosyncracies."

The work also reveals something about Gayne: Among the 1,800 portraits recovered, 400 are of African Americans. These are handsome subjects: a seated gentleman with a favorite book; another in a fancy suit, silk handkerchief in pocket, cigar in hand; a woman in striped gown posed next to a fancy wicker chair (the chair still exists and will be in the show). "She didn't have but one door and one set of props," Schmidt said.

Mysteriously, the dozens of brooches found all hold portraits of African Americans. Why these brooches — thought to be memorials of the dead — were kept by the Prellers rather than by the subjects' families is a mystery.

The photographs will be shown in their original condition, though some digital enlargements will be included in the exhibition. Because the works are not dated, they will be organized in the show by place rather than chronology, though dress style will hint at the older ones, and those with a white backdrop are the latest.

Some of Hugo Preller's meticulously painted mussel shells — one of a fire at what he calls a "crude oil irrigation plant" at Crockett's Bluff; another is of three snagboats at DeVall's Bluff — will be in the exhibition, as will a few of the original doors from the Sears door house: Greer Lile saved some of them in the 1970s when he heard the house was falling in.

Hugo Preller taught Sunday school in Augusta until World War I, when he was asked to quit because he was German. He also wrote a book on his study of the Bible, a book that was about "the harmony of the creation story and science," Schmidt said. "I started putting it on the computer, but that was laborious and boring because he quoted Scripture sometimes twice in the same phrase," she said. "He was on a search for eternal life. We were considered the peculiar Prellers," Schmidt said. Where is the book now? "It's around here somewhere," she said.

The opening reception will be from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. There will be live music by the Cons of Formant and Arkansas-made beer by Core Brewing.

HUGO PRELLER PORTRAIT: The Prellers apparently added a bit of color to this photograph to indicate the fawn's blood. Note the squirrels tied at his waist.
  • HUGO PRELLER PORTRAIT: The Prellers apparently added a bit of color to this photograph to indicate the fawn's blood. Note the squirrels tied at his waist.

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