June 12, 2024

Longtime Photographer of University is Subject of Retrospective at Mudd Library

CAMPUS CHRONICLER: This photo of workers sorting books at Princeton University is among those on display at “Credit Line, Please,” an exhibit of photos by Elizabeth Menzies, on view at the Seeley Mudd Library through April 2025.

By Anne Levin

From 1936 until the late 1960s, it was rare to find an issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly (PAW) that didn’t feature a photo — usually on the cover — by Elizabeth Menzies. The photographer’s contributions, a selection of which are on display at the University’s Seeley Mudd Library starting Thursday, June 13, represent a visual chronicle of Princeton University through the decades.

“Credit Line, Please” features photos on Mudd Library’s walls and display cases. Curators Phoebe Nobles, Emma Paradies, and Rosalba Varallo Recchia, who work at Princeton University Library, wanted to celebrate the woman whom Princeton history professor Julian Boyd said had “the intellect of a scholar, the heart of a concerned citizen, and the hand of an artist.”

They decided to mount the exhibit after repeatedly noticing her photos cropping up, here and there, in various campus archives. The show is thematic rather than chronological.

“There is no one collection of her work,” said Nobles. “But she has works in a bunch of collections from around the mid-century. Often, there is something a little wry in her photos. She has a point of view. After a while, you can tell something is hers.”

Born in 1915, Elizabeth Grant Cranbrook Menzies was the only child of Princeton chemistry professor Alan Menzies. She took a childhood interest in photographic chemistry, using photosensitive emulsions and chemical baths to lift visions out of the dark.

The title of the show refers to Menzies’ efforts to receive recognition, financial and otherwise, for her work. “It was an increasing quest,” said Nobles.

Menzies’ first photo for PAW was in 1936. Three years later, at the age of 24, she earned recognition for a photo she took of Princeton resident Albert Einstein, for the magazine Scientific American. It was an achievement in itself, as the famous physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study had come to resent his notoriety.

“In contrast to the way most photographers captured him in his home — from above, with Einstein flinching away from the camera —Menzies knelt at the seated man’s eye level and looked at him straightforwardly, as photograph connoisseurs have noted. Perhaps she told a joke; he stifled a smile. The result was a portrait that seems like a work of disclosure rather than exposure: a famous face looking steadily at the viewer, brows arched, as though the sitter is weighing whether to divulge a secret.”

Despite landing the Einstein assignment for Scientific American, Menzies continued to make everyday people her subjects for PAW. “She paid attention to building maintenance — people working on scaffolds, on ladders, stacking books,” said Nobles.

Menzies took a day job in 1954, at what is now called the University’s Index of Medieval Art. She stopped selling to PAW in the late 1960s, turning her attention to books. In 1967, she published Princeton Architecture: A Pictorial History of Town and Campus, co-authored with Constance Greiff and Mary Gibbons. She published three more books, but she continued to take photos for magazines including Fortune, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, and Time.

“She became increasingly concerned with environmental issues. It seems like she really enjoyed her work in laboratories and greenhouses. But campus architecture also formed a large part of her portfolio. She tended to frame, or obscure, her architectural subjects with tree branches,” said Nobles, pointing to photos of the New South building and the Boathouse on Lake Carnegie.

Menzies retired from the University in 1980.

“Credit Line, Please” is scheduled to remain on view through April 2025. The Mudd Library’s lobby is open Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Visit library.princeton.edu/Elizabeth-menzies.