Westport is filled with talented family portrait photographers. John Videler, Pamela Einarsen, Suzanne Sheridan, Alison Wachstein — they and many more are admired for their ability to capture fun, intimate moments between parents and siblings, in back yards, woods and beaches.
Their photos are so natural, we don’t think twice about them.
But images like these were not always the norm. Back in the day, family portraits were formal affairs: rigidly staged, elaborately posed, everyone stiffly wearing their Sunday best.
Someone had to develop the art of informal family photography.
Amazingly, that someone was a Westporter.
Betty and Russell Kuhner — married photographers — moved here in the 1930s, when the town was a true artists’ colony. They leaped into its cultural life.
Specializing in men’s portraits, he photographed many of the actors who appeared at the Westport Country Playhouse.
Betty had grown up with no siblings, raised by an unwelcoming stepmother. She was drawn to families that interacted with each other, with love and spontaneity.
She decided to try something new: photographing families doing just that, in outdoor settings. Worried about the effect this novel concept might have on her husband’s Westport reputation, Betty tested out the concept in Greenwich.
She spent hours searching for the right locations. She backlit them naturally, with sunlight filtering through leaves. She let children climb on trees, and asked their parents to lean casually against the trunks. Her portraits were nature-filled — and natural.
They were also beautiful, and well received. Greenwich clients introduced her to friends in Newport. They led her, in turn, to families in Palm Beach, Southampton, and everywhere else the country club set gathered.
Russell quietly supported his wife’s burgeoning business. He stayed in the background, working in the darkroom printing her images.
Betty’s career thrived, for 5 decades. In the late 1980s she handed her cameras to her daughter Kate. Betty died in 2014, at 98.
After Bedford Elementary, Kate went away to school. Her brothers attended private school too.
All these years later, she is amazed by her mother’s accomplishments.
“I’m blown away by what looks like the simplicity of what she did,” Kate says from West Palm Beach, where she lives. “Of course, it’s not simple at all. Somehow, she got family members to interact, and love each other. And she captured it so well on film.”
Today, the black-and-white “environmental portrait” that Betty pioneered is the revered standard.
Kate notes too that retailers like Ralph Lauren and Abercrombie & Fitch have built ad campaigns — and entire brands — around Betty Kuhner’s way of getting people to look at, smile and play with each other.
Kate — a photographer herself — has long been the keeper of her mother’s archives. In April she published a book. Betty Kuhner: The American Family Portrait includes many examples of groundbreaking photography. It includes famous families she’s worked with — Kennedys, Fords and Pulitzers — and Westport families too.
Some of the family portraits of Bobby and Ted Kennedy’s families have never been seen.
There are stories and anecdotes about the many families she photographed, of course.
But Betty’s photos form the heart of the book. Just as they form a bright, important chapter in photographic history.
One that started right here, in a darkroom in Westport.