The Dorn-Severini Historic Photography Collection

Importance of the Dorn Collection

By Austin Wagner 

The Dorn-Severini Historic Photography Collection is very important to the history of Monmouth County, but it also tells us much about the history of life in America in general, and the history of photography.

Photographs play a big role in people’s lives, as they connect people to their past, and remind of us of old relationships, memories, stories, and feelings. Photographs can help people get a sense of their ancestry and who they as people, as a community. Archives like the Dorn-Severini Historic Photography Collection serve an important duty in preserving important memories for the benefit of future societies to enjoy and remember, and learn from.

We asked some notable Monmouth County Historians to share their thoughts on the collection, and thank them for allowing us to share those thoughts here. We think these comments reflect both the importance of the collection and the challenges posed as processing commences. 


Rick Geffken, author of Lost Amusement Parks of the North Jersey Shore and Hidden History of Monmouth County:

“George and Kathy (Dorn) Severini curated one of the most important visual collections of Monmouth County history for decades. The collection spanned most of the 20th century and included aerial photographs of Monmouth County landmarks now gone. Other scenes - which may have initially appeared as mundane, day-to-day snapshots of local people and places going about their day to day lives - are now invaluable cultural and sociological studies of the way we once were. Images of people having fun at, say, Jersey Shore amusement parks, reveal much more than recreational patterns. These studies reveal how people dressed, family structures, food and drink habits, and more. Easily overlooked backgrounds showing cars, buildings, businesses and more can be as important as the subject people themselves. Any number of books will be written using the Dorn Classic Images Collection - publications about churches, small businesses, social gatherings, people in war and peace, automobiles, small aircraft, and, notably, remarkable depictions of the occupations of the African-American minority population which can serve as visual documentation of their emergence into middle class society. It must be noted that the collection, as valuable as it is of and in itself, should be supplemented with the intimate, encyclopedic knowledge George and Kathy bring to it. Monmouth University public history professors might consider a student project of video interviews with the Severinis.” 


Longtime Monmouth County Archivist Gary Saretzky:

“Although the lack of [a complete] index makes it difficult to assess the value of the Dorn collection, the number of negatives makes it one of the largest collections of Monmouth County photographic images in existence.  It is of particular significance for the number of early 20th century images that the Dorn firm acquired from other local photographers because there is no comparable source for images from that era.  Since the firm was based in Red Bank, the collection is especially valuable for the large number of images taken in Red Bank but it also contains many photographs of people and places taken elsewhere in Monmouth County and the region.” 


Randall Gabrielan, Vice-Chair, Monmouth County Historical Commission:

The collection's "main source was the firm’s commercial photography business, notably from the 1940s" forward..."These images have the most reliable labeling and dating...The majority are images of Red Bank, with good representation of the surrounding towns." The collection also "includes numerous older images gathered from various sources. They include copies of post cards and the work of earlier photographers accumulated over the years including Charles Foxwell and Andrew Coleman. Many were printed from glass plates that were often in precarious condition. Other images include one-offs that were gathered from various other sources, probably including copy work done for customers. Others came from donation or trade. For example, two of their more 'popular' images are of Count Basie and his father Harvey Basie. The latter includes multiple images...offered to Dorn in exchange for other photos...The firm held many unidentified negatives, stored in envelopes perhaps with dates, but with no hint of subjects. Some appeared to be portrait work. I recall sifting through some boxes with the hope of making an occasional identification and attaining minor successes. The dating and identification of older, non-firm work is problematical. Negative envelopes were at times marked erroneously, the work done at a time when information was not readily known or available. One example was revealed recently when an image of a no-longer extant Red Bank church was posted on-line and dated 1894. The church was destroyed by fire in 1882."

"... the aerials also have real historic merit and I believe their utility has increased over the years as our county has changed. Many aerials remain in the hands of the customers who commissioned them."

"The labels on an old Dorn’s list are scanty, while their old numbering system does not appear to have a discernable order. If these captions have not been enhanced over the years, research will be required for accurate cataloging."