Dayton Art Institute Photo Show Brings Dayton of Old to Life

Dec 16, 2019

William Preston Mayfield learned to take photographs when he was nine and became one of Dayton's most famous photojournalists.
Credit Dayton Art Institute. On loan from Cristina and Ren Egbert

William Preston Mayfield led a fantastic life.

He learned to take photos when he was nine, talked the Dayton Daily News into a job at twelve, and, by his early teens, became the first person to take a photograph from an airplane.

Mayfield became famous while the Dayton Art Institute was being built, so it only makes sense that a collection of his work would be on display for DAI’s Centennial.

Katherine Ryckman Siegwarth, the photography curator at DAI, says it took some time for Mayfield to gain the Wright Brothers’ trust.

“He had been on assignment for Dayton Daily News to go out to Huffman Prairie to take photographs of the Wright Brothers, but it was when he was fourteen he finally convinced Orville Wright to take him up in the plane,” she says.

Here, it’s important to remember that early Wright Brothers planes were nothing like today’s planes. There were made of wood and canvas. There was no cabin, no interior at all, no seatbelts.

And Mayfield’s camera was nothing like today’s cameras. It was basically a gigantic wooden box that could only take one photo at a time. So, he had to hold that big old box out over the wing.

“The story goes he was terrified. It was a cold November morning, and Orville pointed down at the flight hanger and said, ‘Take a photo!’ and with the one negative he had, he took that photo,” Siegwarth says.

Ironically, The Dayton Daily News didn’t want to run the photo. Since there weren’t any people in the photograph, the newspaper didn’t see much value in it. But Mayfield did.

By the mid-1920s, he would go on “Barnstorming” tours. He’d grab a pilot and go from city to city, renting planes, taking photos, and selling them for a hefty profit. 

William Preston Mayfield's photograph of the Columbia Theater during snow storm, 1914.
Credit Dayton Art Institute. On loan from Cristina and Ren Egbert

In addition to being the grandfather of modern aerial photography, Mayfield is Dayton’s most famous photojournalist.

For six decades, he took photos of Dayton’s most important events and landmarks. All those old, black and white photos create a compelling visual history of Dayton that’s on display in this exhibit.

Siegwarth says one of her favorites is a photo of the DP&L Streamplant on Third Street downtown. She says it goes from deceptively simple to comically complex if you examine the side of the plants tall smokestack and see that a handful of tiny people are on it, hamming it up for the camera.

“It just looks like an industrial scene,” she says. “But if you look closely, you can see all the men on the smokestack, and they all have one leg into the ladder, but then the other leg out, with their arms on their hips, in this row of succession, maybe six people, and it just shows that it’s an elegant yet fun commissioned photograph.”

The men on the ladder, in midair, halfway up the smokestack, look like industrial Rockettes.

And that old, industrial steam plant was recently renovated and turned into a posh private event center.

It’s pretty easy for Daytonians to play a game of “now and then” or “guess that building” when going through this exhibit.

One photo is of a line of 15 women standing with their bicycles in front of the Davis Sewing Building. It’s a bit of foreshadowing. The Davis Sewing Machine company would eventually morph into the Huffman Corporation, which made it big with Huffy bikes.

The bicycle company left the building on Linden Avenue in East Dayton years ago. These days, it’s mostly artists lofts.

Jan Underwood spent decades working as a photographer for the Dayton Daily News, so she’s uniquely qualified to address Mayfield’s work and how it’s equally art and craft.

“I’m a photojournalist,” Underwood says. “So, to me, history and documentation are at the core of what I do, but every photographer strives for an image that catches the eye and captivates the imagination, and I guess that’s what art is.”

There’s no shortage of history in the photos on display at DAI. There’s parades at the end of World War I, crowds gathering in the streets to listen to the World Series on the radio, a photo of the famous female pilot Ruth Law, and one of media mogul James Cox.

Some of the most moving photos are of Dayton tragedies. There’s one of an downtown hotel--The Beckel--that caught fire. Black smoke bellows from its windows. There’s a tangle of hoses on the street.

Underwood says what makes a great photo, like the Bekel Hotel print, is when the camera captures people’s reactions to the event.

“It’s how it effects people that is important, and here you can see that hundreds of people came to watch this fire,” Underwood says.

There is, of course, a photo of homes damaged and destroyed by the flood of 1913. And there’s a photo of hundreds of people gathered at the Court House on Third and Main for a flood relief fundraiser after the waters finally subsided.

At the end of this difficult year, when Dayton saw a mass shooting traumatize one neighborhood and tornadoes destroy others, it’s all too easy to relate to the Daytonians in that photo from over 100 years ago.

The William Preston Mayfield exhibit at Dayton Art Institute runs through January 5.

William Preston Mayfield's photographer of Ziegfeld Follies Chorus Girls, circa 1921.
Credit Dayton Art Institute. On loan from Cristina and Ren Egbert

This story was created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.