This Hudson Valley Photographer Turns Old Items Into Modern Artifacts

A father’s baseball glove | Photos by Cynthia Delconte

Cynthia Delconte photographs personal items with rich stories behind them for the pop-up Modern Artifact Studio in Rhinebeck.

Downsizing can be difficult. When you have to move to a new home, or a family member passes away, getting rid of older items of personal value is never easy. Even if the belongings are technically worthless, they can hold great sentimental meaning. Bottom line, no one wants a house that’s full of clutter.

Of course, you could always turn the things that are really special into “modern artifacts.” Cynthia Delconte, a wedding and event photographer who has worked in the Hudson Valley for more than 33 years, works with old, meaningful items to create stunning pieces of modern art. When transformed into a striking photograph hung in a frame, these things can live on forever.

1910 Smith Corona typewriter owned by actor John MacKay

“What I’m photographing are objects that matter to people, but they don’t have any use for. They’re lying dormant in boxes or closets, and I’ve found a way to bring them to life,” Delconte says.

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The Modern Artifact Studio currently lives as a pop-up on Montgomery Row in Rhinebeck (at the Sapling Shop). Delconte went business to business to find a home for her idea, and she’s set up both an art gallery and place to discuss commissions.

Cynthia Delconte in front of the tools portrait

The incredibly unique concept was born from necessity: in a year of immense turbulence and flux, Delconte needed to find a way to preserve keepsakes from her home.

“My husband, who had been ill for a while, had to go into a facility in March. That was very isolating, for him and for me. I’m seeing him like you see someone in prison, He’s behind a window, and there’s no physical touch, no hugs,” Delconte says. “He’s in a nursing home now, and he’s never coming home.”

The pandemic cancelled virtually all large weddings, eliminating her main livelihood. With medical care costs piled on the loss of primary income, COVID-19 presented a financially taxing situation for Delconte.  She had to give up her studio in Tivoli, along with her home.

Delconte shooting at the White House

During the move, she began sorting through her husband’s things, objects tied to so many years of memories, and couldn’t part with them. They would be meaningless and worthless to anyone else, merely objects that had to go, but they were his. So she started doing what she does best: taking pictures.

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She’s had experience infusing life into inanimate objects with photography before. The husband-and-wife pair ran a product studio back in the late 1970s in New York City. They photographed beautiful advertising for luxury items like perfume, alcohol, and jewelry, where Delconte mastered lighting objects. 

“I thought, ‘Gee, I can’t be the only person in the world that has stuff they don’t know what to do with.’ Maybe this is a business,” Delconte recalls. She spent the summer looking for items that told stories and had many long, intimate conversations with people.

A grandfather’s tools

In one case, Delconte’s assistant told her about his grandfather. He was a woodworker who taught his grandson everything he knew. They connected over the shared craft and spent many hours together working on projects. When he fell ill with Parkinson’s, the hands that once steadily crafted works of art could no longer grip the tools, which were banished to the basement.

The young woodworker followed in his grandfather’s footsteps and continued the trade. He developed a passion for piecing together one-of-a-kind furniture and made his grandfather proud. Inspired and touched by the story, Delconte brought the rusty hammers and handsaws into her studio and found the creativity and artistry within them.

“His grandfather is one of those straightforward, non-emotional guys. When he received the photographs as a Father’s Day present, he actually began to cry,” Delconte says. The stunning shots hang on his wall, a reminder that although the days of working side by side in the woodshop with his grandson are over, they will never be forgotten.

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A father’s old baseball glove on display

In another instance, a pair of young girls delighted in playing catch with their father, an athletic baseball fanatic. Whether they were in their backyard playing on a summer evening or driving in his Ford Impala listening to the sounds of pinstriped players in the Bronx, their father always sported the same old glove. A simple peek at this item brings back every happy memory they had with their father, a man whose life was taken by Multiple Sclerosis.

A trophy from a wonderful childhood, the glove, like many artifacts, dilapidated over the years as it was attacked by mold and mildew. The girls wondered how could they keep a rotting piece of leather, but they also knew it would pain them to throw it away. In their photograph, every detail on the glove reads like a history of lost days with their dad, days now immortalized in modern art.

Product photography for New York Magazine

“When I’m working with these objects, I’m trying to make them beautiful, but at the same time I’m not changing them in any way. I don’t alter them, I don’t clean them. I’m representing them as people remembered them so when we put it on the way, the memories are clear.”

In another scenario, Delconte’s acquaintance, the widow of Broadway and film actor John MacKay, held onto a gorgeous Smith Corona typewriter from 1910. It belonged to the late actor, who carried the piece with him during his immigration from France.

The typewriter followed him throughout his life and he eventually typed out his memoir on its keys. The beautiful old machine collected stories of dark jazz clubs in Paris and long rehearsals on Manhattan stages. Once MacKay died, the portable typewriter sat in his wife’s barn for many years, collecting nothing but cobwebs…at least, until Delconte photographed it.

“It’s truly one of my favorites. We printed it on a huge canvas 40 X 60, and framed it in a simple walnut strip frame,” Delconte says.

A first date to the World’s Fair, immortalized in art

More and more stories pile up. A copy of the New York Times that a father saved the day of his son’s birth, a teacup representing the multigenerational business A.L. Stickle 5 & Dime, a John Coltrane vinyl record that survived decades of play, the license plate of a car that got a couple on their first date to the 1939 World’s Fair, and many more grace the Hudson Valley artist’s photos. Delconte starts with the story, listening to vivid descriptions of detailed memories, and then takes the object into the studio to work with it.

“It takes some thought and decision-making, but I really enjoy it. I love the process. You get to look at something really closely and experience it in a way that’s different than what we normally do in our lives when we’re zooming around,” Delconte says.

Delconte regularly worked with dancers from the NYC Ballet

This new style of shooting is radically different from her old one. Delconte has shot over 1,200 weddings in the last 20 years, booking as many as 70 in a year. Her skill and talent at capturing authentic moments in people’s lives have opened up many doors for her in a long, illustrious career. She started out as a stringer for the New York Times and has worked with the NYC Ballet numerous times. More recently, she shot Amanda Hearst’s wedding at the Hearst Castle.

“People have often said I get to the soul of people when I’m shooting. I think what they mean is I capture more than just a pretty picture, I capture some emotional quality,” Delconte explains.

An example of Delconte’s striking photography

Modern Artifact Studio marks a new period in Delconte’s career. There are only so many fast-paced hot summer weddings a person can shoot (while carrying all their own equipment) before tiring out. When outdoor weddings start up again she will do a few, but, in restoring people’s memories, she’s found a new calling and purpose for her art.

“I’m not the youngest photographer and I feel like it’s this is a really great transition for me because, as I get older, I can always do this, there’s no age limit. And because I don’t intend to ever not do my art, this ensures I will always have a career,” Delconte says.

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