Mary Binney Wheeler : A Romantic Traveler
Mary Binney Wheeler can be rightfully considered as the last of the great Romantic travelers, those true adventurers of the human spirit seeking to discover and unlock the mystique of far away lands. Yet her images are more than picturesque or exotic. She was unique in her ability to balance the timeless with the mundane, splendor with homeliness: the intense devotion of an anonymous devotee before the image of the deity is as haunting and profound as the far away majesty of the Himalayas veiled in cloud and mystery.
Her photographic chronicle of life in South Asia was but one aspect of her multi-faceted life. Born into a prominent Philadelphia family in 1907, Mary Binney Montgomery Wheeler demonstrated her talents for music and dance at an early age. A true prodigy, she studied piano at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music and at 17 performed at Carnegie Hall as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Leopold Stokowski. The burden of chronic stage anxiety prompted her to lay aside plans for a career as a concert pianist, but her remarkable talent for dance allowed her to develop her musical talent in another direction. Wheeler was a gifted dancer and choreographer, forming the Montgomery Ballet Company in 1932, and maintaining a dance studio on Walnut Street in Center City Philadelphia into her later years. It was not until after the death of her husband, John Pearce Wheeler in 1964, that Wheeler developed what would turn out to be an abiding interest in South Asia, a fascination inspired largely by her close friendship with the Philadelphia Museum of Art's noted historian of South Asian art, Dr. Stella Kramrisch.
Over the course of fourteen trips, Wheeler took some 9,000 photographs of life in India and Sri Lanka. Her photos, generously given in bequest to Penn Libraries by Wheeler's family after her death in 1995, reveal intimate details of the landscape, architecture, culture and lives of the people she encountered throughout her travels. Her work, which has been recognized by the National Geographic Society, the Indian government, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Penn, encompasses a broad range of subjects, all of which hold interest for scholars of South Asia: anthropology and folklore, religious studies, art and architecture. Wheeler's lens captured the myriad activities of daily living-- house the mundane tasks of cleaning, washing laundry and getting water; leisure activities such as picnics and social gatherings; the world of work from salesmen on rivers, laborers in the lumber trade and families of textile workers weaving rugs. Her landscape photography depicts some of the region's most breathtaking views: from the Himalayan Mountains to the beach shanties of Sri Lanka, from jungle wilderness to well manicured gardens, from the Ganges to the Arabian Sea. She also preserved images of sacred art and architecture, pilgrimage sites, and religious rituals and processions from the regions' Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu traditions. Her visual records of temple rituals, festivals, dance performances and religious art facilitate comparative studies across time, cultures and religions.
What makes this collection of travel photographs so unique? Mary Wheeler always planned her trips with a purpose or theme in mind, providing us with a natural arrangement of her slides which we have easily and faithfully preserved as we have scanned her images. And then, of course, there is that wonderful talent that she seemed to have for anything she strove to master-- a talent that plays havoc with smug distinctions between "amateur" and "professional". One is constantly struck by the sheer number of stunningly beautiful and evocative images that she recorded with her camera and that wonderful eye. And as if those riches weren't quite sufficient-- the visitor to the site can meet Mary Wheeler herself narrating entire slide-lectures which she composed for and gave at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Indeed, the lectures are really the crown of the Mary Binney Wheeler collection. Here it is in all its adventurous, poetic, Romantic glory-- the tail-end of the Age of Discovery. Fresh, yet cultured, utterly American and at the same time completely cosmopolitan, an age that has effectively vanished with the onslaught of electronic globalism, living still to delight a new generation of listeners searching for the beauty and uniqueness of human experience.