A new exhibit at the New Jersey State Museum introduces the work of a prolific photographer more than 100 years after he documented ordinary people and places in the state. “Discovering Grant Castner” showcases the amateur photographer’s perceptive eye, appreciation for everyday life, and restless curiosity.
“He didn’t just take pictures of his family members,” says Nicholas Ciotala, the museum’s curator of cultural history. “He went out into the community, traveling by train to Belvidere, Camden, Mercer County, Atlantic City, Cape May and Toms River.”
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Born in Belvidere in 1863, Castner spent his adult life in Trenton. His art reveals an interest in turn-of-the-century transportation and infrastructure, such as the Delaware’s covered bridges. His portraits of working-class New Jerseyans, including African Americans, are reminiscent of those by Jacob Riis, candid and unvarnished: A woman rests with a baby on her lap; a shoeshine man gives a faint smile; a woman sits mending a garment. Castner also depicted New Jerseyans at leisure: men at a campsite, and Victorian men and women as they picnic on a riverbank.
In 2019, a private collector’s estate donated more than 1,000 glass plate negatives to the museum. “To have a whole collection attributed to the same photographer is rare,” Ciotala says. “And it’s especially rare to come across someone totally unknown.” On display with Castner’s images are rarely displayed related objects from the museum’s collection, such as shad-fishing equipment.
“Discovering Grant Castner” is at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton from February 3 to September 15; admission is free.