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Olive (Robbins) Pierce (1925 - 23 May 2016) was born in Chicago, Illinois to Laurence Robbins, a banker who served as an assistant secretary of the US Treasury Department during the Eisenhower administration, and Sarah Farwell Robbins. Pierce grew up in the suburb of Lake Forest and went to boarding school at Chatham Hall, an Episcopal girls' school in Virginia. She attended Vassar College to study English, graduating in 1945 through an accelerated wartime program. After working at the Art Institute in Chicago, Peirce moved to Boston. In 1948, she took a position as a secretary for a United Nations medical mission in Poland where she began taking pictures. It was the experience of photographing war-torn Warsaw as well as the concentration camp, Auschwitz that inspired Pierce’s interest in photography.

After returning to Boston, Pierce taught fourth grade at The Meadowbrook School in Weston until 1951, when she married George Pierce and settled in Cambridge. They had three children Laurence Pierce (b. 1952), Anne Pierce (b. 1953), and Elizabeth Pierce (b. 1956). Pierce returned to photography, mostly taking portraits of children, and under the tutelage of Berenice Abbot and Paul Caponigro began her professional career.

Pierce was a Bunting Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study from 1965 to 1967. Here she began to focus on documentary photography rather than portrait work. These early photographs centered on her children and the environs of her summer home on Vinalhaven, a small island in Midcoast Maine.

Pierce began to explore documentary photography more fully and the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts became her subject. She spent the next decade as a freelance photographer, working for the Cambridge Chronicle, and teaching at the New England School of Photography, while embarking on two major documentary projects.

Her first project was to discover the local democratic process. Every Monday night between 1970 and 1972, she photographed Cambridge City Council meetings. The newly elected City Council fired the city manager – despite much protest, was pressured to establish of rent control, and was charged by members of the city’s black community of unfair treatment by the police. A turbulent time in the city’s history, Pierce captured tensions between citizens, elected officials, and the police.

Pierce’s next project focused on Jefferson Park, a public housing project located in North Cambridge. From 1973 to 1975, Pierce went to project’s courtyard and took photographs of the children who lived there. Once a week, she returned with prints that the children purchased for 25 cents.

In 1977, Pierce was hired as a substitute teacher in the Art Department of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She then went on to create the school’s first photograph program, which she headed for ten years. In 1986, she published No Easy Roses: A Look at the Lives of City Teenagers, featuring photographs she took of students during her tenure. The book includes excerpts of testimonies or oral histories that Pierce recorded, asking the students about their home lives, future plans, and dreams.

After leaving her teaching position, Pierce once again turned her attention to Maine. This time she documented the difficult lives of those living in a small fishing village in Waldoboro, Maine. Beginning in 1987, Pierce spent ten years getting to know the Carter and Harvey Families and their community that she describes as “rural, insular, and interdependent.”[1] She rented a cottage near the families and spent a year photographing their lives and work - clam digging, scalloping, shrimping, pogeying, lobstering, home making, and childrearing. Pierce received another Bunting Fellowship in 1991 and 1992 to work on a book featuring the fishing community. Her photographs were exhibited at the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine in 1989 and at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1992. Up River: The Story of a Maine Fishing Community (coauthored by Carolyn Chute), the book resulting in this documentary project, was published in 1996.

A lifelong political activist, Pierce was particularly affected by the first Gulf War in 1990. As a political protest against the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq, 73 year-old Pierce traveled illegally to Baghdad and Basrah in 1999 under the auspices of Voices in the Wilderness to witness children’s live under duress. She returned with photographs that were later made into postcards produced by the Art of Compassion. At the outbreak of the second Gulf War in 2003, Pierce photographed demonstrations of pro and anti-war supporters on the Newcastle Bridge in Damariscotta, Maine.

Pierce received the 2001 Peace and Justice Award from the City of Cambridge. In 2002, she was featured as part of the series, Maine Masters Project, for her career as a documentary photographer. In 2014, Pierce published the first of a four-part memoir, Out of the Midwest: A Memoir in Four Parts, 1925-1948.Pierce’s photographs have been shown in galleries in Massachusetts, Maine, and Illinois. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Portland Museum of Art, the Addison Gallery of American Art, and the Farnsworth Art Museum.

[1] Pierce, Olive, “Up River: The Story of a Maine Fishing Community,” University Press of New England, Hanover, NH, 8.

Collection Overview

This collection contains photographs, books, moving images, audio cassettes, and ephemera from several projects that Olive Pierce worked on during her 40-year career as a documentary photographer. The photographs include the following:

1. Portraits taken during the 1960s, featuring the environs in and around Vinalhaven in midcoast Maine.

2. Cambridge City Council Meetings (1970-1972), featuring images of politicians, police, witnesses, experts, and citizen spectators taking part in the city’s democratic process during a turbulent time.

3. Portraits of the Jefferson Park Housing Project in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1973-1975), portraying children and their lives in the project.

4. No Easy Roses (1982-1985) has two components. Pierce took candid photographs of students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin where she worked. She also took headshots to accompany oral histories she recorded of students. These photographs were published in No Easy Roses: A Look at the Lives of City Teenagers in 1986.

5. Photographs of a fishing community in Waldoboro, Maine (1987-1993) that were later published in UpRiver: The Story of a Maine Fishing Community in 1996.

6. Portraits taken of Iraqi children in Baghdad and Basrah in 1999.

All titles and descriptions are written by Pierce on the back of her photographs. Each photograph is a taken on black and white film and is either a fiber print or a resin coated print.

The collection also contains books that Pierce wrote:

1. Pierce, Olive, No Easy Roses: A Look At the Lives of City Teenagers, Cambridge, Mass, 1986, signed, paperback, Thomas Todd, printer.

2. Pierce, Olive, No Easy Roses: A Look At the Lives of City Teenagers, Cambridge, Mass, 1986, signed, red cloth hard cover with embossed rose, Thomas Todd, printer.

3. Pierce, Olive, Out of the Midwest: A Memoir in Four Parts, 1925 – 1948; Part I: Childhood, 1925 – 1939, signed, self published , 2014.

4. Pierce, Olive, Up River: The Story of A Maine Fishing Community, University Press of New England, 1996, signed.

Also included is an audio cassette of the oral history interviews Pierce conducted for No Easy Roses; a DVD, Maine Master: Olive Pierce and Olive Pierce: Children of Iraq, Maine Masters Project, 2002; and postcards of the photographs Pierce took in Iraq.

Iraq, 1999

Iraq, 1999

10 photos