Elizabeth Menzies: Photographing Princeton

By Iliyah Coles ’22

Photography openly invites those who aren’t necessarily trained to recognize visual techniques. As one of those people, I find myself leaning on how a picture makes me feel. I’ve seen many photographs of Princeton’s campus, but it’s Elizabeth Menzies’s photographs that always draw me in. Any viewer can tell through her photography that this is the way she viewed the town she was raised in. There’s so much character in her photos, and the quirky captions she sometimes included are an added bonus.

Elizabeth Grant Cranbrook Menzies was born on June 24, 1915 in Princeton, New Jersey. She was the daughter of Professor Alan W. C. Menzies and Mary I. Menzies (formerly Dickson) of the Princeton-Kingston Road. Both were from Edinburgh, Scotland, making Elizabeth a first-generation American. After graduating from school, she became a photographer, and her work grew to be very well-known in Princeton. In fact, Menzies progressed into somewhat of a small-town celebrity. Her name was widely known across Princeton and she was even referred to as the town historian in South Jersey’s Courier-Post. Menzies was published in several magazines and newspapers, and often commissioned to take photographs of Princeton University’s campus. Below are a few of her pieces in the Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111).

“Campus View: West Campus,” 1980. Photo by Elizabeth Menzies. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box AD01, Image No. 7573.

“East Pyne Cafeteria,” 1954. Photo by Elizabeth Menzies. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box AD02, Image No. 7765.

Reading in Princeton University’s Firestone Library, 1967. Photo by Elizabeth Menzies, Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box AD04, Image No. 8329.

Some time into her photography career, Menzies became a member of the staff of the Index of Christian Art. In 1957, she spent several months in Europe recording Christian Iconography for the Index. Menzies also won a New Jersey Tercentenary Medal in 1964 for her picture of Albert Einstein and later received an “Author Citation” from the New Jersey Institute of Technology for her photography book, Passage Between Rivers.

Elizabeth Menzies with some of her photographs, 1978. Photo from Princeton Weekly Bulletin.

Menzies took photographs for the Princeton Alumni Weekly as well. Several were featured on covers. It is possible that she was one of the first women photographers whose work had been chosen for college football programs. Besides photography, Menzies also painted, including abstract and lacquer paintings.

One photography series Menzies did at Princeton University was called “Elimination of Cars on Campus.” She closely followed the changes in parking permissibility on Princeton grounds, taking pictures of how they affected transportation while also inserting witty humor into the captions beneath the photographs.

Nassau Inn/Peacock Inn, ca. 1964, captioned, “Visitors to the Princeton Inn had best beware, for if they obey this sign they will jump the new curb and find themselves on a new campus walk. There is no longer a driving road between Washington Road and University Place.” Photo and caption by Elizabeth Menzies. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box AD11.

Parking lot, ca. 1963, captioned, “With such strict policing it seemed for a moment as though the University had really gone overboard and was about to hang the flagrant offenders, but, as it turned out, these gibbets were merely to support lighting fixtures to illuminate the parking areas.” Photo and caption by Elizabeth Menzies. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box AD11.

She also kept close documentation of the demolition of the Art Museum in her collection called “The Art Museum and Antioch Court Album, 1964,” which we can see parallels with today, as construction for the new art museum is already underway.

Students gather to observe the demolition of the Art Museum, 1964. Photo by Elizabeth Menzies. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box AD17.

Menzies was even hired to take pictures of the dedication of the Dulles Reading Room, where President Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie Eisenhower, were both in attendance.

Adlai Stevenson, Allen W. Dulles, Arthur H. Dean, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Robert Goheen, and Janet Avery Dulles in Firestone Library, 1962. Photo by Elizabeth Menzies. Princeton University Library Records (AC123), Box 383.

Menzies’s work was so pervasive throughout the town she became a household name. With the advent of social media, we don’t see as many small-town celebrities anymore, especially not ones whose work lived on years after their passing. When we visualize Princeton now, we often picture it through Menzies’ lens–a warm-hearted, people-centered version of the town she held close to her heart.

 

Sources:

Ancestry Library

Faculty and Professional Staff Files (AC107)

Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111)

Milton Halsey Thomas Papers (C0706)

Papers of Princeton

Princeton University Library Records (AC123)

Princeton University Press Records (C0728)

ProQuest Historical Newspapers

Robert Judson Clark Papers (AC208)

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