Treasures from a box in the attic
Photos & Text by Rob Benchley Independent Photographer


Gilbert Wyer was one of those old Nantucketers, a familiar face seen in all the usual places along Main Street. And although “Gibby” died more than 15 years ago, his face can be seen once again (with 29 of his World War II contemporaries) at the Nantucket Historical Association’s Whitney Gallery.

The portraits of the uniformed servicemen were taken by William W. Coffin in the mid-40’s, and were recently donated by Coffin’s daughters Marilyn Coffin Brown and Carolyn Coffin Marlowe. And as is typical with such rediscovered treasures, they were found by the sisters, in a box, up in their mother’s attic.

Titled “Nantucket’s Greatest Generation,” the show offers a startling look not only at an era gone by, but also at the involvement of Nantucket’s servicemen in the War effort. But let’s not get too maudlin here, for many of the men portrayed are still alive.

The photos are printed on 11by 14-inch textured paper, and in the style of the day, they are hand-tinted.

Consider the portrait of Gibby Wyer: Coffin’s hand includes soft, classical lighting, limited depthof field. The full effect is rendered by the tinting. Gibby’s eyes stare out from a dream.

Recognized as well are Albert “Bud” Egan, Andrew Swain, Walter Barrett (the late Mayor of Tuckernuck) James Psaradelis, and 25 others.

For visitors at the gallery there is a log provided where one may leave a note or jot down a memory. One entry reads: “Recognized them all;” another, “Loved seeing familiar faces.” The exhibit is a welcome addition to the NHA’s 50,000-plus photograph collection, as these portraits summon an undeniable sense of hopefulness, confidence and expectation.

The Whitney Gallery, housed in the entry of the Research Library on Fair Street, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; it is closed Wednesdays, weekends and holidays. Plan to be surprised by this exhibit; you’ll be re-connected with some old friends, some of whom we still see around.

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