Photograph taken by itinerant photographer A.V. Rabenau of a group of Overseas Railway workers on Pigeon Key in 1910.  This image and many others will form part of the Custom House Museum’s upcoming exhibit, “Under Construction: Glass Plate Negatives of A.V. Rabenau”  (Photo Credit: Key West Art & Historical Society)

Itinerant Photographer of the 1910s featured in a New Exhibition at the Custom House Museum

The Key West Art & Historical Society is pleased to announce the opening of “Under Construction: Glass Plate Negatives of A.V. Rabenau,” an exhibition of vintage photographs staged in the Bumpus Gallery at the Custom House Museum, 281 Front Street.  Curated by Cori Convertito, the exhibition features black and white prints from the original glass plate negatives taken by an itinerant photographer known as A.V. Rabenau.

The negatives were acquired by the Key West Art & Historical Society in late 2020 from a private collector.  The collection consists of over sixty early 20th century glass plate negatives taken by Rabenau during a visit to the Florida Keys.  Little is known of the photographer, but his striking work suggests he was an experienced professional.  He visited the Florida Keys during a pivotal time in its history – the construction of the Overseas Railway.  The ‘dry plate’ negatives are not dated, but it is probable that he paid a visit to the island chain sometime between 1909 and 1911.

“Rabenau was not alone in using glass plate negatives to capture images of railroad construction workers.  From about 1870 to 1920, many photographers used fragile glass plates to portray daily life,” says Convertito.  “Plates were sold in boxes, factory-coated with a gelatin emulsion of silver bromide, available through mail order or at stores in large villages such as Key West.  The photographer loaded one negative at a time into their camera, made the exposure, and stored the negative until he or she developed it in a home darkroom.”

Significant portions of Rabenau’s images are staged portraits of the men, women and children living and working on Pigeon Key.  Others are portraits of Key West’s residents taken at the time when the photographer established a temporary studio on the island.

“The negatives speak to a special time and place in Florida Keys history,” adds Convertito.  “Rabenau never published his photographs, meaning the museum’s recently acquired collection brings never-before-seen images to light.  You will not find his striking portraits anywhere else.  They are a treasure.”

“Under Construction: Glass Plate Negatives of A.V. Rabenau” launches with an exhibit opening on April 30, from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. that is open to the public.  Social distancing and masks will be required in order to adhere to local and CDC guidelines.  The exhibition runs until September 2021 and is sponsored by the Helmerich Trust and the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.  For more information call Cori Convertito, Ph.D., at 305-295-6616 x112, email her at cconvertitofarrar@kwahs.org, or visit kwahs.org/exhibitions.  Your Museums.  Your Community.  It Takes an Island.