How does somebody with no particular background in the field discover an unknown but prolific and artistic photographer? In late 2020, neoclassical songwriter Bernie Zelitch, retired from journalism and software engineering, was creating a music video about a mill ghost from 1909.
He came across a University of Massachusetts Lowell image of a haunting “anonymous” mill worker. That single photograph, which he used, set him on an unexpected quest that ultimately revealed the remarkable Annie Powell (b 1859, West Yorkshire, England, d 1952, Lowell).
Zelitch says she never signed her work; in one case, a man received credit for her photos. Zelitch asserts, however, that a preponderance of forensic and stylistic evidence, as well as century-old “selfies”, shows that she is almost certainly the creator of over 2,500 extant photos. More are being discovered.
Ultimately, her photos went into collections in England, Cornell University, Harvard University and the University of Masachussets Lowell, her adopted city. In her longest assignment from about 1900 to 1932, Powell worked for pennies per photo documenting potholes and construction sites for Lowell City Engineers and spent hours transforming glass plate negatives into works of art.
She died in 1952 at the age of 92; her unmarked grave is steps from that of tourist destination Jack Kerouac.
To help understand the mill worker photo, Zelitch contacted Annie Powell descendants. For some reason, they had kept her final effects long after having lost track of their owner. He created “by Annie Powell, Inc.” a nonprofit devoted to acquisition, preservation, promotion, and research, and byAnniePowell.org goes live on April 15. Annie’s great-great-great grandniece serves as a director.
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