Pierre presentation, March 2019

My great great grandfather, Pierre Gentieu, was a photographer. He created sharp-focused, sensitive images of the workers and families who worked at the Du Pont Powder Company. His photos express the hard life of the workers, many of whom were new immigrants, at the first big industrial company in the United States, which happened to be situated in the most photogenic location there ever could be for a gunpowder corporation, along the banks of the Brandywine River in the rolling hills of northern Delaware.

During my last year of college, I took a photography class, and suddenly everything seemed to fall into place, and I got instant recognition for my photographs.

Pam and the Rock, Barney’s Joy Beach, Padanaram, Massachusetts, 1977

I became a professional photographer in New York. In 1988, I had a show called “Confabulations” at a gallery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and that show was written up in American Photographer magazine.

They were old found family photos, abandoned and damaged by flood or fire. We made them our own.

A few years after that, I received a letter from a distant cousin Norman Gentieu, Pierre’s 77-year old grandson, saying that he found me from that review in American Photographer, and guessed that I was related to Pierre Gentieu. Did I know that he was a photographer, and that the Hagley Museum in Delaware has a complete set of his photographs?

I had NO idea!

It was an extraordinary letter from my cousin, and it explained why I was so drawn to photography and was kind of good at it, Could it be genetic?

The Hagley Museum told me that the Historical Society of Delaware had Pierre’s entire set of 354 glass plate negatives. The Historical Society let me borrow them to make prints, 10 glass negatives at a time, which was amazing.

I made archival prints from them — not the albumin prints of Pierre’s day, but the equally distinctive, and now-vintage gelatin silver prints of the twentieth century.


Pierre was only 18 years old when he immigrated, alone, to America from Orthez, Lower Pyrenees, France. It was 1860, and he stayed with his aunt and uncle in a room above their Darrigrand French bakery in Brooklyn. When it got cold, Pierre moved to New Orleans, where it was warmer and they spoke French. He joined the Orleans Artillery state militia, then the Civil War broke out, and the militia was absorbed into the Confederacy. Pierre was the first in his company to step out of line. 

Camp Scene of Co. B street at Thibodaux La. Corporal Gentieu sitting in the first tent to the right. From a war photo.

He joined the 13th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry because he liked their uniforms. They were dubbed the “Dandy Regiment.”  He fought in nine Civil War battles, and after the war, married Sarah Albina Weed, the sister of his tent mate and friend who taught him English. Pierre and Binie had six childrenfour boys and two girls.

Pierre came from a family of breveted chocolatiers. The family legend was that they made chocolate for the king!  So after the Civil War, Pierre and Binie settled down in New York, where Pierre opened two French bakeries and then a restaurant. But he ran into terrible debt, so he had to sell the restaurant.

It was 1877 and Pierre was 35, with a five-year old boy, a crawling baby, and a pregnant wife. Pierre was in deep trouble! But alas, he found employment at the DuPont Powder Company in Delaware. The company, being French, making gunpowder, and wanting to help out Civil War veterans, gave Pierre his second chance.



He started as a powder worker, a very dangerous job. But the du Ponts soon recognized his talent when they saw a goauche painting he made of the Lower Yard, and he was promoted to work in the office. You could say that art saved Pierre’s life from the many explosions that were occurring in the powder yards.


Pierre sometimes brought his camera to work with him, and for a long time was the only person allowed in the yards with a camera.

To quote from a clipping from the book, Corporate Images: Photography and the Du Pont Company 1865 – 1972, which the Hagley Museum and Library sent me in 1992 as an introduction to Pierre’s photography:

“Gentieu’s photography was very straight forward, with simple camera angles and poses dictated not only by his equipment, but also by his clear minded approach. He was a gifted amateur photographer who desired to show things distinctly in his pictures. For this he was encouraged by the officers of the Du Pont Company, and we can be thankful that he has left us the benefit of his vision. His photography was to leave a mark in the history of the company he worked for so faithfully for so long.” 

To have found this connection to my roots has been so profound. If it hadn’t been for a photo credit, if it hadn’t been for Norman looking me up, if it hadn’t been for the Hagley keeping Pierre’s collection with his name on it, I never would have known.

Jeep Administration Building Implosion, Toledo, Ohio  1979 Penny Gentieu


I am Louis-Philippe, King of the French, greeting all here and all to come. And although this is a mere mortal marriage contract of 1838, just look at all those ancestor names! Enjoy, future seekers of the past.

My grandmother, Helen Moyer Pinkerton

In 1997 I was invited to write about and submit a photograph of my grandmother for the book, Our Grandmothers, which was an anthology of the grandmother photos and memoirs by 74 granddaughters who are photographers. Amazingly, my photo was chosen by jury for the cover, and the jury included such heavyweights as Kathy Ryan, Photo Editor of the New York Times Magazine; Michelle Stevenson, Photo Editor of Time; and Michele McNally, Photo Editor of Fortune.

I was in great company, some of the other photographers were Sylvia Plachy of the Village Voice, Margaretta Mitchell, author of Recollections: Ten Women of Photography (1979) and long time ASMP leader; Helen Marcus, President of ASMP at the time I joined and she sponsored me; Deborah Willis, photographer, author, curator and scholar; and Annie Leibovitz, who is so cool, she didn’t even have to write anything.

22 years ago, I wrote down my impressions of my grandmother and her amazing house that was full of stuff, but now I can see her legacy, through my mother, to my daughter.  I marvel at my new discoveries of my sweet, strong Mennonite-rooted grandmother.

Helen Moyer Pinkerton was descended from Mennonites in Germany who were persecuted and fled to Switzerland, finally settling in Bucks County, Pennsylvania in 1742. Her father, Joseph W. Moyer, the fifth generation of the American Moyer lineage, moved to Washington DC, where he worked in real estate. Her mother was also from a fifth generation American Mennonite family, originally from Palatinate. My grandmother comes from a 100% Mennonite background, the first generation born of a family that broke away from their Mennonite community. Wow, I just realized that.

Audrey and Helen Moyer, sisters, standing next to their grandmother, Catherine Hepler Freed in Lansdale, Pennsylvania ca. 1903

Helen was worldly, born in Washington, DC in 1892. She had two sisters. They had an older brother who was accidentally shot in a hunting accident at the age of 14 on the banks of the Potomac.

Helen graduated from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York with a degree in fashion design some time before 1918, when she met Sherwood Mortley Pinkerton Jr., who was in the Army, passing through Washington DC. “When I saw her in 1918, my inner voice said, she’s the one,” my grandfather would tell us. They were married on June 10, 1919, in Washington, DC.

They settled down in Toledo, Ohio, where Sherwood took his place in the family business founded by his grandfather, John W. – the Pinkerton Tobacco Company. The company began in Zanesville and moved to Toledo in 1911, having built a factory right on Swayne Field, behind the ballpark that opened in 1909.

Helen gave up a fashion design career in New York, but she made up for it in her four creative daughters.

My mother, Audrey Moyer Pinkerton, was the second born, in 1922, and a child prodigy. She painted her entire life. This newspaper article even mentions that she had had continuous lessons with Karl Kappes starting at age nine! And there she is in the photo, painting a large canvas, no doubt carrying out a Karl Kappes painting assignment to copy a Thomas Gainsborough, or something.

In 1953, probably when my mother was pregnant with me, she painted a portrait of her aunt and namesake, Audrey (which I was named as well.) The painting was an amalgamation of two photos – source material that I recently recognized – a photograph of my grandmother, ca. 1918, and a photograph of the two sisters, whereas my mother used the body of her mother in the first photo and the face of Audrey in the second photo, to create a romantic portrait of her mother’s beloved late sister, a flapper who was married to the “Jazz Minister.”  My mother gave the painting to her mother, whereupon it hung in their Westmoreland dining room, across from the Anna Hale Buckingham ancestor painting.

Thanksgiving, 1961 at the Pinkertons. Paintings on the wall are of Sherwood’s great grandparents, Alvah Buckingham and Anna Hale Buckingham.
Painting of Audrey hanging on the dining room wall opposite the ancestor painting of Anna Hale Buckingham. December 1958. My sister, my two cousins, and me.

Then the painting hung in our Brooklyn apartment when our daughter, Anna was growing up. Anna was 21 when she used it in a photo series of self-portraits satirizing the Ten Commandments. One of Anna’s special talents is in her styling, and she has always loved fashion. Dressed in clothing reminiscent of a Dutch painting (Mennonites originated in Holland in the 16th Century, but that’s totally irrelevant), she held under her arm the painting of Audrey by Audrey for her rendition of “Do Not Steal.”

Anna won a prize for this photo in the Toledo Museum of Art’s annual 94th Toledo Area Artists’ Exhibition, in 2013. The photo was featured in The Blade and it inspired a solo show at the Paula Brown Gallery in Toledo. Anna sold editioned prints of the photo, and other photos, as well the entire set of 10 Commandments photographs. It was right after college, and she earned enough money to lease a pre-war apartment in New York.

The 10 Commandments series was published as the 10th Matte Magazine. The Museum of Modern Art’s periodicals curator bought it for the museum’s collection of millennium magazines.  The series was also published online in 10 countries and in the Korean print magazine, Blink. The 10 Commandments were exhibited in Anna’s first New York solo show, in 2016.

I used the painting in 2009 for the logo of artistsoftoledo.com, which I created to honor my mother, who died that year. The painting in the logo represents the beginnings of the Toledo Museum of Art, when George W. Stevens placed a painting on the floor in front of a “filtched” chair to sit down rich folks and espouse the virtues of building of a museum to hang the painting, enticing them to donate money to build the museum.  But I have digressed…

Now, back to my grandmother:

My grandmother talked on the phone with my mother for hours a day. This was her phone booth, in the hallway by the staircase of their house, around the corner from the kitchen.
My grandparents in their living room at Christmas. To the left is the painting made by my mother at age 14, which you can see her actually painting in the above newspaper clipping from 1937. On the right are 11 cases of my grandfather’s Kodachromes, that were fortunately given to me when they moved out of their house in 1977, and from which this very picture originated – maybe from that middle box on the left.
My grandmother posing with Agda, her Swedish maid. The two appear to have a very strong bond between them, as they both look so intentionally defiant in the photo, and my grandmother is holding her sash.
My grandmother posing in their garden in a dress that she made. In fact, she probably made all of her clothes. She was 100% Mennonite, new-agey, sophisticated and educated with a fine art degree in clothing design.
With my grandfather, who was an avid photographer and gardener in his retirement.
Looks like Christmas 1957, one year before the painting on the left was replaced by the painting of Audrey. My dad is sitting on the left, my brother on the right, and I am sitting in my mother’s lap playing the accordion.
The Pinkerton home on the corner of Richmond Rd and Woodruff in the Westmoreland neighborhood of Toledo, a Georgian Colonial Revival house that my grandparents built in 1927 and lived in for fifty years. My grandmother died in 1978 at age 86 on Thanksgiving, and my grandfather followed her on January 1, 1980, also at age 86.  (My mother too was 86 when she died, in 2009.)  When we moved back to Toledo in December of 2008, there happened to be a Westmoreland house tour, and their house was featured. My brother and sister and I got to see the inside of the house again, but there was a big something missing. It seemed so small, without them in it.

See also:

Granddad Pinkerton & Hebe

George Gentieu and World War 1

In honor of the Armistice Day Centennial Celebration, November 11, 2018

the modest great war story of a modest great uncle

“I am in your place over here so that America returns to France your services,” George Gentieu wrote in a letter to his father from St. Nazaire, France on January 5, 1919. “Best Wishes  1842 – 1919, France – America, Father and Son.”

George is Pierre Gentieu’s third son, born in 1878. He was 40 when he served in the Army in France during World War 1. He liked to say that he served in France so that America could return to France the service of his father in the Civil War.  Pierre Gentieu came to America from France in 1860 and was not even an American citizen when he fought in the Civil War.  (In fact, 150 years later, Pierre’s descendants are still saying it was amazing that Pierre volunteered to fight in the Civil War when he was not yet a citizen.)

The Civil War had an enormous impact on Pierre’s family, because fighting in the Civil War profoundly affected Pierre’s entire life.  Pierre’s involvement in Civil War veteran activities and all things military and commemorative influenced George, along with each one of his five siblings. For example, in 1901 George was Captain of the Appomattox Camp, No. 2, Md. Division of the Sons of Veterans, in Wilmington, Delaware.

Frank, Pierre, George Gentieu, circa 1898

George moved to Imperial, California. When the Big War came, George  wanted to “give the Germans a sample of what we are in America when we get fighting mad.” He wanted to show solidarity with the French by fighting in France. Even though age 35 was the limit for military enlistments and George was 39, he filed for an age exception.

“I feel more fit at 39 years than I was at 20, know more, can take care of myself and am stronger,” he wrote. An age exception was made and in August of 1917, George enlisted in the California Army National Guard, which he joined because he heard they’d be going to France. This group formed the 143rd Field Artillery Regiment of the 65th Artillery Brigade, 40th Division, and George became a corporal. They were sent to France in August 1918, just four months before Armistice Day, November 11, 1918.

George did not face combat but did serve during the transitional period. Soldiers with technical skills were kept in France long after the war ended. As an engineer, George stayed in France until July 1919. He was granted three furloughs during that time, which he used to visit his father’s family in Orthez and Bordeaux three times.

Corporal George Gentieu shaking hands with his French cousin, Auguste Pondarre, and Sergeant Henry, 1919, Orthez, Lower Pyrenees, France.

George went to great lengths to become a soldier in the Great War against Germany, much like the efforts of his father in regard to the Civil War 55 years earlier. After all, George and Pierre were descended from soldiers who fought in Napoleon’s Army – the grandfather and great uncle of Pierre. “I want to uphold the honor of the country and the name of Gentieu,” George wrote to his mother on April 1, 1917. While accomplishing that, he had the good fortune of getting to know his French aunts, uncles and cousins. George experienced the culture of the ancestral home that was so important to the new American Gentieu family, because they so loved and honored their father, Pierre.

George never married and never had children. He was an investigative writer and owner of an industrial plumbing business. He died in Tucson, Arizona of a heart attack at age 52 in January 1931, just six months after Pierre passed away. He is photographed below with Pierre in 1919 after World War 1, and in 1929, the last photograph taken with his father.

Photo by George Gentieu, circa 1928

Curiosity and Inspiration — a dedication to Norman Gentieu

I really ought to dedicate this Pierrepenny blog to Norman Gentieu (1915-2009). Norman totally changed my life. He was a distant cousin I had never known about, until December, 1991, when I received a letter from him. Norman was searching the Gentieu name at the Philadelphia Library when he found a review of a show of my photos in American Photographer. The photos that were featured were the old found slides from the 50’s — the series called “Confabulations.”

Norman wrote to me that he thought I was related to his grandfather Pierre Gentieu, who came to the United States from France in 1860 at the age of 18, and did I know he was a photographer, and that his photos are in the collection of a museum in Wilmington, Delaware?  What?? WOW! I knew Pierre was my great great grandfather and that he came to America, and I thought he was an artist, but nobody ever told me he was a photographer, and here I was many years into my photography career.

I could go on about this forever. It meant a lot to find out that my ancestor was a photographer. I became a believer, of some sort, as if knowing, even more so, that I truly was on the right path in pursuit of my destiny.

At that time, I had been sharing a studio with another photographer for three years. I wanted to get my own studio, but wasn’t sure I could make it. After reading that letter, I went out looking for my own place. On January 13, 1992, I moved into the corner space of the fifth floor of 380 Lafayette St., corner of Great Jones St., New York City, a beautiful 19th century industrial building. The loft was 2,000 open square feet and had 12 windows with sun streaming in all morning and until 3 in the afternoon.

A month after moving into the studio, Tom and I drove to Philadelphia to meet Norman. This is when the photos were taken with Norman, shown above. Norman had Pierre’s banjo, his camera (which he generously gave me two years later) and a lot of Pierre’s documents and photos. He showed me a photo of Pierre, the first one I ever saw. Pierre was wearing some sort of uniform with a big LG on the front. Norman said it stood for “Lafayette Guard,” a Civil War veteran’s group of Pierre’s.

That’s when I realized that Pierre was my guardian angel. At least that’s what I want to believe. My career really took off after that. My Lafayette Street studio was very special, and I kept it for 10 years, until the rent went sky high, after which I rented studio space by the day.

Curiosity, Norman’s wife said about Norman contacting me — curiosity and taking a chance, she said were two of his most distinctive attributes. Through Norman’s search of the Gentieu name, and through my use of the old found photos of an anonymous family, I found my own family, and so much inspiration. Thank you Norman — say hello to Pierre for me.

Alvah and Anna Buckingham of Putnam, Muskingham County, Ohio

Many Springfield Twp. Farms Became Part of the City
Zanesville Sunday Times Signal, Sept. 28, 1958
Dinner at my grandparents, Sherwood and Helen Pinkerton’s house on Richmond Road in Toledo, Ohio, 1954. Baby is me. Woman on left is Aunt Elise Pinkerton Stewart. (see blog post, The Tea-Dyed Brown Dress.)  Paintings of Anna and Alvah Buckingham on the wall.
I never thought of my ancestors as being activists by looking at these two in the paintings that I grew up with in my grandparents dining room. But now I see them in an entirely different way! They came from fierce New England Puritan stock who believed that the laws of God trumped the law of the land that allowed slavery. Putnam was a small village across the river from Zanesville Ohio, and my New England ancestors were among the original settlers. Zanesville, on the other hand, was settled by folks from Kentucky and West Virginia. And there were fights.

Putnam Presbyterian Church was active with abolitionist activities. Photo ©1999 Penny Gentieu
Part of the Underground Railroad, this house has several hideaways. The owner, Major Horace Nye (veteran of the War of 1812) was threatened so many times by his foes that he slept with a pitchfork next to him for protection. Photo ©1999 Penny Gentieu 

My ancestors’ names are Alvah and Anna Buckingham. Alvah helped build the Putnam Presbyterian Church in 1835, which was actively involved in the abolitionist movement. William Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the first minister of the church. Frederick Douglass spoke there in 1852. For many years, the church held a monthly prayer service for the abolition of slavery. The first Ohio Anti-Slavery Convention took place in Putnam, as well as the first publication of the abolitionist newspaper, The Philanthropist. What a great community!

Alvah and Anna Buckingham house, 405 Moxahala Avenue, built 1821. Photo ©1999 Penny Gentieu

In 1799, when Alvah Buckingham was 8, his family moved to southeast Ohio, on horseback. In 1819 Alvah met Anna Hale of Glastonbury, Connecticut on a trip back east and married her. They built a house on Moxahala Avenue in 1821. (Three generations have subsequently lived in the house.) He was in the mercantile business with his brother and brother-in-law and later, opened a lumber trade. In 1852, he built the first grain elevator in Chicago, and owned the first grain elevator in Toledo.

In 1865 when Alvah was 74, he and Anna moved to New York City to be closer to their two daughters who also lived in New York City. They owned a home at 13 East 12th St.

In 1866, Alvah took a trip out west with his youngest son, James in a spring wagon over rough roads, “without any apparent fatigue.” (James is my GG Grandfather and grandfather of Elise Pinkerton, born 1904, see blog post, The Tea-Dyed Brown Dress.)

Anna Buckingham died of pneumonia on September 23, 1867, and her remains were brought back to Ohio. Alvah Buckingham died 11 days later, on October 4, 1867.

In 1639, Alvah Buckingham’s Puritan ancestors settled the farthest most reaches of America – Milford, Connecticut. Alvah was descended from immigrant ancestor, Thomas Buckingham, born in Minsden, Herts, England. Alvah’s father, Ebenezer Buckingham, fought in the Revolutionary War.

My grandfather, Sherwood Pinkerton Jr. later to be president of the family business, The Pinkerton Tobacco Company in Toledo, Ohio, is sitting in lower right corner. His mother, Julia Buckingham Pinkerton is standing behind him, next to her father, James Buckingham.  James’ wife, Jane Wills Buckingham is in the center. The room they are in is the front right side of the 405 Moxahala Avenue house, shown above. Photo circa 1905.
Sherwood Pinkerton with the paintings of his great grandparents, in his Central Avenue apartment in Toledo, November 1979, six weeks before he passed away.
Paintings of Anna and Alvah Buckingham, inherited by my mother, were donated to the Zanesville Art Institute in 1980. The museum gave them to the Pioneer and Historical Society of Muskingham County. The paintings now hang in the Increase Mathews house in Putnam, owned by the historical society. Photo ©1999 Penny Gentieu
Increase Mathews house in Putnam, where the portraits of Alvah and Anna Buckingham hang. 

Photo ©1999 Penny Gentieu

The Tea-Dyed Brown Dress

I recently found these photos in my inherited family albums. The first one, from 1908, is of my grandfather’s only sister, Elise. I never knew anything about her, but learned that she died at age 4 of typhoid fever, the year this photo was taken. The second photo is my Aunt Elise in 1925. I realized that she was named after this little girl. The third is my Aunt Julia in 1933, who was named after my grandfather’s mother, Julia Buckingham Pinkerton.

About 20 years ago, when my daughter was five, Aunt Elise gave me the dress. It wasn’t in any condition to put on my daughter. I didn’t know the story of the dress, but it seemed spooky. I kept it in a drawer, wrapped in tissue paper. I took it out last week when I discovered these photos.

Imbued with the mystery of the child who died in 1908 and my aunts who wore the dress for formal portraits by the famous studios of Bachrach in 1925 and CL Lewis in 1933, it is disintegrating at the sleeves, having been hand-patched in various places apparently long ago.

There was a lump in the fabric, something in the pocket — I was a little afraid to see what it was! I pulled it out, and the message from my female ancestors, going all the way back to my great grandmother Julia Buckingham Pinkerton, who probably sewed it, couldn’t have been sweeter. It was a century-old hand-crocheted hankie with a girl with a bow in her hair and bounce in her step, and the words, Tuesday’s child is full of grace.