Discovery of a Photographic Memory: Through the Lens of my Cousin Kenneth A. Linn

The following are photos left in the attic of a New Jersey home of a distant relative who I did not know, or even know of until 2010. I came into possession and knowledge of the photographs via a fellow genealogy researcher who stumbled on a large collection of photos attached with her purchase of an old baseball uniform recovered from the same attic of a deceased resident in Westfield, NJ. She became curious about the drama unfolding in the photos and searched for family members online, which is where I came into the picture. From these pictures I’ve pieced together a story of affluence and artistic experimentation during storied days in New York City of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. The human story which is captured in the photos is ultimately a sad one, sprinkled with beauty, art and history.

Kenneth A Linn with family including ailing sister.
Kenneth A. Linn (camera in hand) with ailing sister Betty and parents.

I’ve written previously about this line of my family which lived in NYC. My 1st cousin twice removed, Kenneth A. Linn was a student and later executive director* of the avant-garde Clarence H. White School of Photography whose students include Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White. His father Allen, my grandfather’s uncle, was a silk manufacturer. Allen was a handsome young man and appears to have enjoyed nice clothes and the occasional cigar. He married into a wealthy family and experienced success in his own right. The family lived in the Upper West Side of Manhattan in a brownstone just off of Central Park West. They had a live-in maid named Mary who maybe had a daughter living with her based on photos and Census records.

Allen and Sadie Linn

Below is a photo of Allen Linn which I presume was taken by his son Kenneth. I make that assumption based on his apparent age (knowing that Kenneth was already studying photography), there are no studio markings on it, and its professional quality. Whomever took it was a professional. Allen’s expression in the photo is personal and confident.

Allen Linn circa 1920s
Robert Linn, Allen’s brother and my great grandfather.

Kenneth was the oldest of three children. His sisters were Betty and Helen who favored each other at an early age. Helen appears more bookish as she grows older. Except for their wealth they seemed to be average kids. Some of the photos of Betty seemed to belie a theatrical ambition. I wonder if they might have been headshots for auditioning. She was a modern and striking young woman. There is mention of a young gentleman in her life.

SS Paris Lounge photo by Kenneth A. Linn
Helen with cat and unknown young girl
Helen (left), unknown girl, Kenneth (standing) Betty

As a family they traveled to Europe together by ship many times. In at least one instance Kenneth was on the S.S. Paris, a luxury ocean liner historically riddled with nautical mishaps which later caught fire while docked at Le Havre, France and capsized. It lay in place during WWII. One of Kenneth’s noted and collected photos is from the Art Nouveau styled lounge of this vessel. The family also returned to Ohio to visit Allen’s parents and siblings. They summered in New Jersey, it appears, where the mother, Sarah, had family.

Helen Linn
Betty Linn

A Sudden Change

All things seemed to be going along fine until the mid ’30s when Betty’s appearance changes dramatically. Suddenly there is a nurse living with them. They leave New York City entirely. Allen is retired by now. The photos seem to depict a severe and sudden decline in Betty that resembles Polio or MS. In one photo the nurse is carrying Betty to a body of water with Kenneth guiding her steps down a set of stairs for water therapy. She dies in June of 1939 at the age of 30.

In my research I’ve never been able to find a death certificate for Betty, yet I did visit her grave in Brooklyn’s amazing Green-Wood Cemetery where the family and some of New York City’s world famous political and artistic residents are buried including Boss Tweed, Leonard Bernstein, Horace Greeley, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Allen Linn swimming circa 1938-1939
Allen swimming. (Presume photo was taken by Kenneth)

Allen and his wife Sarah die ten years apart–bookending WWII. Ken serves in the Army’s Signal Corp during the war. After their parents’ passings Helen and Ken live out the rest of their lives, together, I believe, unmarried and childless in New Jersey; she as a bookkeeper for the YWCA until 1953 and freelance writer for Scribners, and he seemed to juggle stints teaching photography at his alma mater (Trinity College) and The Progressive School of Photography in Connecticut as well as working in Morristown, NJ.

Some of Kenneth’s photos from this period, in the midst of a developing family tragedy, still manage to show his artistry—or maybe it’s more aptly, detachment in the form of his safe place. I can’t know for sure.

Personally, given my own photography work and interest this connection has even greater significance, as you might imagine. I originally intended to post this during Thanksgiving, as it is a story I am thankful to now know, to whatever extent. I hope it serves as a reminder to those who read it that those family photos in your attic, or your grandparent’s attic can be a treasure trove for relatives and researchers down the road. Share them, keep them and don’t throw them all away!

*According to Christie’s essay

The Roots of My Photography

photo by Kenneth A. Linn

For many years I have been exploring my ancestry, and I recently made an interesting discovery. It appears my love for almost all things related to photography may run in the family.  My grandfather’s cousin, my first cousin twice removed, was, and is, a relatively well-known photographer in New York whose work is still sought by collectors and galleries. His name was Kenneth A. Linn and he studied and taught at The Clarence H. White School of Photography in New York City which was the first school to teach photography as an art form.

Allen and Sadie Linn

Photographic collections from this prestigious school, which operated from 1914 to 1942, are held in the Library of Congress and in private collections such as the Coville Collection. This small school is credited with producing some of the most celebrated photographers of the 20th Century who were innovative in their approach to this evolving and emerging medium, which incorporated design, aesthetics and illustration.  I wonder what their reaction would be to today’s imagery, and the viral, visual bombardment from the television and the Internet?

Kenneth A. Linn

Kenneth A. Linn was the son of Allen and Sadie Linn.  Allen was a silk salesman in New York and Sadie, formerly Sadie Neafie McCollough, came from a well-to-do family, I’m told.  My side of the family through Robert A. Linn, Allen’s brother,  stayed in Ohio and West Virginia selling life insurance–need I say more!

Since being given my first old camera I’ve loved the sound of the shutter.  I would walk around taking pretend photos, no film in the camera, just to hear the shutter movement.  Somehow even though the direct lineage should have made me a salesman, I got the photo gene.