The Clues in the Frame: An Introduction to Clarence Trefry

Posted by Allison Radomski on

Carefully examining your photographs and negatives is always a smart idea. However, this practice becomes even more important when you're trying to find out who took a photograph or determine when a print was made. Case in point: our search for Clarence Trefry.

When I first found the negatives that now make up our Trefry collection, they were simply a collection of unmarked glass plates in unlabeled boxes. With nothing to go on but the images themselves, we began investigating the origins of these particular negatives by scouring each negative for clues. Thankfully, the geography and landmarks offer vital information. Many of these negatives include the St. Andrew’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in the background. Another negative (not included in this particular batch but coming soon!) includes a carriage with the label “Farragut House” emblazoned across the top. Thanks to these details, we were able to determine that the majority of these photographs were taken around Rye, New Hampshire, which is home to both the famed church and the historic Farragut House Hotel.

Portrait of style, with a famous church in the background.


After digging around on the Rye Historical Society’s website, we realized that these particular negatives bear a striking resemblance to the work of Clarence Trefry, a local Rye photographer who was active around the turn of the century. While we can’t say for certain that these negatives were taken by him, we’re pretty confident in this hypothesis. (And if you want to check our detective work, you can go to the Rye Historical Society’s website and compare our negatives against theirs.)

We don’t know everything about Mr. Trefry (yet), but we do know a few things, thanks to Ancestry. Trefry was born in 1870, and according to the Rye Historical Society, he made a living as a railroad photographer in New England. In 1900, he married Grace Hyde. Although the couple had a son together, the child died during infancy, and Grace died that same year. It may have been that both mother and son died during childbirth, although we can’t say for sure at this point. Ten years later, Clarence married again. They were together until his wife, Marie, died in 1953. Clarence died five years later, in 1958.

Although this biography is scant, it offers us a small window into the context behind this collection. Judging by the hairstyles and clothing of the subjects (including the short dark dresses that appear to be women’s swimwear), these photographs were most likely taken sometime between 1890 and 1915. So much was happening for Trefry during this particular time: his burgeoning career, his first marriage, the perhaps sudden death of his wife and child. It’s interesting to consider all of the unseen emotions that the photographer was experiencing, perhaps unbeknownst to those he was photographing.

Three Women Alone


There’s a lot to explore in Trefry’s photographs, from the historic St. Andrew’s church to the story of the Farragut House. Next door to Rye is Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a town that’s known for its vibrant Black history, and in recent decades, Portsmouth has worked hard to publicize these lesser-known histories. It’s likely that Trefry’s work includes members of Portsmouth’s Black community. Trefry’s photographs, which seem to traverse the boundaries of race and class, open up all kinds of conversations, from the politics of Black portraiture to the histories of New England. Those stories and so much more are coming soon.

In the meantime, we hope you enjoy Trefry’s photographs. His portraits are both stunning and subversive, especially the ones that cultivate a sense of beauty and dignity for otherwise marginalized individuals. The people who pose for his camera often maintain a cool composure, offering little hints of personality (like bowler hats and pronounced body language) while still keeping their observers at bay. Inviting yet mysterious, stoic yet lively, Trefry’s portraits offer many opportunities for conversation. We look forward to sharing them all with you.


Gazing back.

Want to know even more about how to use details like clothing and attire to help you date your old photographs? Head to WorthPoint and keep reading!

Dating Your Vintage Photographs: Women's Clothing Styles

And if you want to know more about what all was going on in the world of photography during Mr. Trefry's career, check out this blog post: 

In Focus: Late 19th & Early 20th Century Photography


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