Ema Spencer was born to Dr. Benjamin Franklin Spencer and his wife, Susan Porter Spencer, in the Licking County village of Gratiot, Ohio, on March 1, 1857. Benjamin was a well-respected physician in the area and Susan managed the Spencer home and children, which included Ema, Carolyn (b. 1862/63), and Charles Hildreth (b. 1870).
Visitors to Gratiot today might find it hard to believe that this one-street town was once even smaller, but in 1880, the first census in Gratiot recorded a population of only 67. Spencer attended Newark High School, which was about 15 miles away, and graduated Valedictorian of her class. She went on to study at the Young Ladies’ Institute in nearby Granville before working briefly as a school teacher in the area; she then joined her brother Charles at the Newark Advocate. By the early 1890s, Ema Spencer was managing three different departments for the Sunday edition.
In 1898, Spencer helped found the Newark Camera Club with Clarence H. White. The club’s first exhibition was held in August of that year, at Spencer’s home on North Fourth Street. A few months later, Spencer was named Secretary of the Ohio State Association of Amateur Photographers. Though Spencer shot various portraits and city scenes and even published a photo-essay on Granville in Ohio Magazine in 1906, the fine art photographs she produced were quite different. The photographs were often softly-lit domestic scenes featuring simple props like apples, dandelions, and that timeless camera magnet, the cat. Her photographs also focused on the children in her life, allowing viewers charming glimpses into their activities. Her photographic series, A Day in the Life of a Child, depicts scenes of daily life from a child’s perspective.
Spencer and White’s friendship grew and they began to share the operation of a studio. As White became better known outside of Newark, Spencer continued to bolster his work. She wrote the introduction for his solo exhibition at the Camera Club of New York; and an essay, focused specifcally on White’s photographic style, for Camera Craft magazine in 1901.
After White left Newark in 1906, the Newark Camera Club appears to have dissolved; however, Spencer’s photography career continued. Between 1906 and 1914, Spencer showed work in at least seven exhibitions: two in the UK; one in Italy, where she was awarded a silver medal; one in Germany,where she was awarded a bronze medal; and several in New York, including a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in 1914. Throughout her career, reproductions of her work were printed domestically and abroad in magazines like Photograms of the Year, Camera Craft, and The Photographic Times.
Spencer also continued to be an active member of the larger Newark community. Her long-held interest in promoting literacy led her to serve as one of the founding board members of the Newark Public Library. She is also said to have operated a lending library out of the home she shared with her niece Marian. In 1916, Spencer, using the penname “Aunt Ca’line,” began writing a dailycolumn for the Advocate. She would write this column, titled “The Melting Pot,” for 25 years, stopping only near the end of her life. Spencer died on September 30, 1941 at the age of 84.
Despite her significant photography career, it appears that Spencer’s work has only played a major role in one exhibition since her death, a group show of Newark-area women called In Pursuit of Art Amid Difficulties, organized by The Licking County Historical Society and The Ohio State University, Newark, in 1988.
Ema Spencer’s photographs are on display as part of the exhibition No Mere Button-Pressers: Clarence H. White, Ema Spencer, and The Newark Camera Club, a joint production by CMA and The Works: Ohio Center for History, Art & Technology.
-Jordan Spencer, CMA Curatorial Assistant