The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 30, 2005


Author John Hanson Mitchell talks about Mr. Gilbert

John Hanson Mitchell shares his story of researching and writing about Robert A. Gilbert, an African-American photographer who photographed the Concord River in 1911. (Photo by Anne Marie Brako)

Can you name a photographer who worked in the Concord River area about 100 years ago? Author John Hanson Mitchell won't be surprised if you can't. In Mitchell's book, Looking for Mr. Gilbert: The Reimagined Life of an African American, Michell suggests that much of Gilbert's work was incorrectly attributed to his boss, William Brewster, a nineteenth-century ornithologist and conservationist. Attendees of Mitchell's talk, sponsored by the Carlisle Historical Society at the Gleason Library on September 15, learned about Gilbert's history through his attributed photos and Mitchell's suggested history which is documented in his book, a fascinating example of creative non-fiction.

"If I had written about what is actually known about Robert A. Gilbert, it would be 'unpublishable' as a book," says Mitchell. The author would simply not have had enough information. Mitchell wrote a book describing his own journey to uncover the facts about Gilbert. Throughout the book he weaves a tale of probabilities and possibilities about the fascinating African-American photographer. The author presents his own impressions, and although these are based on fact, the author is not required to attribute every fact and minute detail about Gilbert. Very little verifiable information remains. Mitchell did write a completely documentary piece for the Smithsonian, but he labeled it "short."

Mitchell's initial curiosity was piqued when he was involved with a land-use project in the mid-1970s. The final work included photographs attributed to Brewster. Mitchell recalled that a man in denim and a cowboy hat approached him at a party that celebrated the launching of the land-use document. This man called his attribution of the pictures incorrect and suggested that the images had been taken by Brewster's valet, a "Robert A. Gilbert."

The author had noticed that some of the landscape photographs of the Concord River included Brewster, and it seemed apparent that Gilbert must have taken them — especially since some of Brewster's photographs included Gilbert. Mitchell discovered that the two worked as colleagues, and even formed a friendship. The author's research led him to notice that photographs clearly taken by Gilbert had a much greater degree of artistry than the more mundane style evidenced by Brewster.

Mitchell subsequently visited the Concord River, and found someone who actually had known Gilbert. His research took him to the photographic archives of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard and the Virginia countryside to learn about Gilbert's parents and their lives around the time of the Civil War. Mitchell researched the role that the African-American photographer played in elitist Brahmin circles in Boston. He visited the spots where American expatriates — including Gilbert — frequented in Paris. The information Mitchell gathered along the way enabled him to paint a credible story about Gilbert's life.

Mitchell, a resident of Littleton, has authored The Wildest Place on Earth, Ceremonial Time, and Following the Sun. He edits the Mass. Audubon Society journal Sanctuary. Mitchell won the 1994 John Burroughs Essay Award and the 2000 New England Booksellers Award for his body of work. You can learn more about the re-imagined Gilbert and Mitchell's approach by reading Looking for Mr. Gilbert, available at the library and for sale at bookstores.

2005 The Carlisle Mosquito