Your Informal Family Portrait? It Began In Westport.

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.

A traditional family portrait.

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.

(Photo/Betty Kuhner)

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.

Kate and Betty Kuhner in Acapulco, 1972.

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.

(Photo/Betty Kuhner)

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.

Bobby Kennedy and daughter (Photo/Betty Kuhner)

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.

(Photo/Betty Kuhner)

 

12 responses to “Your Informal Family Portrait? It Began In Westport.

  1. Mrs Kuhner was so wonderful. She had the most wonderful laugh and always made the process fun. I can watch myself and my brothers grow up in her photos. Also a great transition when Katie took over

  2. Gosh, that’s marvelous!

  3. Kathleen Bennewitz

    This is such a wonderful article. I have wanted know more about the Kunhers, and look forward to more insights. The WestPAC collection has one image by Russell –a portrait of James Earle Fraser; see link: https://collections.westportps.org/items/show/264

    It would be wonderful to have Betty included too as she deserves to be represented as well.

  4. Mary Cookman Schmerker

    Are Kate’s brothers the Khuner twins ? They have been mentioned in this blog, have perhaps commented, here or on the Exit 17 Facebook page? I always associate them with the pictures in Life Magazine of Miss Comers Ball Room dancing class held at the YMCA. Just curious…..

  5. I was always impressed with the Kuhners’ photographs. They helped me to realize that PRINTING a picture was as important as TAKING the picture. Maybe not so important in the digital age but a good print is a work of art.

  6. Very interesting article Dan. You do your research and share some wonderful stories about our remarkable town

  7. Arline Gertzoff

    I have a whole collection of Russell Kuhner ‘s wonderful children’s photos from the40’she did of our family

  8. Luisa Francoeur

    My parents were friends of the Kuhners and my brother was the same age as and a friend of the twins. Betty took our family portrait and did individual portraits of all 4 children – all outdoors in our yard – and I still have them.

  9. Paul Einarsen

    Love to see this work. Thank you for sharing Dan. It is so great to see that a photographer did such groundbreaking work back then. At the time controversial, but so much more life-like and real.

  10. Mimi McLaughlin

    Every morning I wake up and see the beautiful photos Mrs. Kuhner took of my siblings, mother and me. They give me comfort in ways I never anticipated. Both my brother and mother passed away so the innocence and light evoked in the photographs almost translates to a scent, kind of like a summer breeze. Amazing. She saw more than just her subjects. I’m so grateful for these wonderful reminders.

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