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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Bittinger For Women's History Month: Clara Sipprell

When Clara Sipprell tucked her knee length hair into her safari hat and jumped into her convertible automobile to drive through New York City in the 1920s, she considered herself quite a bohemian. She had won prizes at male dominated camera club exhibitions in Buffalo and New York City, the hub of photographic artists of this era. She had broken those glass ceilings with gusto - swinging her cape, and decked out in oversize jewelry and long scarves as she made her mark. But I think of her as more of a conservative since she conserved the likenesses of Eleanor Roosevelt, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Robert Frost, Albert Einstein, Langston Hughes, and many other luminaries of the time - in her photographs.

Clara Sipprell was born in Canada in 1885, but left when she was twenty to join her brother in Buffalo, New York and to learn photography in his shop as his assistant. There she made color autochromes as well as black and white platinum, bromoil, gum and carbon prints. In addition she and her brother had a summer studio in Lake Placid where they often photographed tourists.
Her New York City life and Vermont summers commenced at about the same time. She moved to New York in 1915 and found work as a contract photographer for the Ethical Culture School, and since she knew the Buffalo based owners of a camp in Thetford she also came to Vermont. She photographed Hanoum Camp - now Camp Farnsworth - for their recruitment booklet. At the camp, she met Irina Khrabroff who then began to manage Clara’s career. Irina’s parents settled in Thetford and were a strong tie for Clara as her career developed. When Irina married and had a child, Clara delighted in photographing the baby as she grew up. Clara wrote, “A child so natural, so gifted, so full of life, like a young tree sunned on all sides.“

As Clara’s fame as a portrait photographer grew, she was swept up into the intellectual circles of Vermont’s literati and in 1937, she moved her summer home from Thetford to Manchester to be closer to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, the writer, and Walter Hard and Robert Frost, the poets. Clara continued to travel throughout the United States and Europe. In 1938, the Swedes treated her like a star as she was escorted around their country to capture images of men and women in the arts, music,and academics - even the royal couple posed for her.

As her biographer, Mary Kennedy McCabe, wrote, her photographs “have a sense of timelessness, evocative and transcendent... they reflect the essence of these subjects.” Clara’s art was recognized by Vermont in 1974 with a governor’s tribute.

This summer at Camp Farnsworth in Thetford, Girl Scouts will again hike around the pond once photographed by Clara Sipprell almost one hundred years ago. Perhaps they’ll happen upon the same perfect lighting casting shadows across canoes and lily pads that Clara did - and stop to make pictures of their own.

Cyndy Bittinger is a writer and historian, who teaches at the Community College of Vermont. Her latest book is, "Vermont Women, Native Americans and African Americans: Out of the Shadows of History."
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