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Hugo and Gayne Preller

Hugo Arthur Preller (1865–1950) and Gayne Avey Preller (1874–1958) owned a floating portrait studio and traveled along the Mississippi River and White River from 1898 to 1950. They took photographs of Arkansans while living in different towns along the rivers. Hugo Preller was also a gunsmith, watchmaker, writer, and painter. Gayne Preller took most the photos inside the studio, while her husband took the outdoor photos. 

Hugo Arthur Preller was born in 1865 in Weimer, Germany. Gayne Laura Avey was born in 1874 in Kentucky. Hugo was sent to the United States in the late 1800s by his parents to escape the potential war environment. He arrived in America when he was seventeen years old and spoke only German. When he was twenty-five years old, and living in Columbus, Kentucky, he met sixteen-year-old Gayne Avey, a local merchant’s daughter. Hugo and Gayne were married in 1892. They had eight children; one infant son drowned in 1895.

The Prellers left Kentucky and lived in a houseboat on the Wolf River in Memphis, Tennessee, for three years. The Prellers then sold their houseboat and built what was known as their “floating studio.” They traveled the Mississippi River and then up the White River until 1910, when they settled in Augusta (Woodruff County). They purchased a home from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue, which was sold under the name “House of Doors.” It became a permanent studio where they offered prints as well as enlargements printed on canvas. Gayne operated it until Hugo died in 1950 at the age of eighty-five. Gayne, one of the earliest female commercial photographers in Arkansas, died in 1958 at the age of eighty-four.

The Prellers’ granddaughter Gayne Preller Schmidt of Augusta, daughter of the Prellers’ son Victor Hugo Preller, is the owner of the collection of more than 2,000 photographs taken by her grandparents. The Prellers’ mostly unidentified photographs show the state’s natural habitat along the eastern rivers of the Arkansas Delta, the people who lived there, and early photography techniques. The natural light used and the friendly and casual environment provided by the Prellers gave their photos a unique quality that remained constant over the years.

Chris Engholm, an author and photographer in Bentonville (Benton County), began organizing and restoring the photographs. Some of the photos, along with painted mussel shells and oil paintings by Hugo Preller, have been displayed throughout Arkansas in an exhibit curated by Engholm. The exhibit also displayed a model built by Greer Lile in the 1970s of the Prellers’ “floating studio.” The exhibit, named “House of Light,” was said to show the “largest and earliest known collection of vintage photography in the Delta region.” The project was supported by a grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

For additional information:
Cobb, Kellie. “Documenting the Delta.” Jonesboro Sun, July 27, 2014, 1C, 10C. 

Hugo and Gayne Preller’s House of Light. http://www.chrisengholm.com/HouseOfLight (accessed January 5, 2016).

Peacock, Leslie Newell. “The House of Light.” Arkansas Times, April 7, 2016, pp. 16–17, 19, 21–22. Online at http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/the-house-of-light/Content?oid=4360841 (accessed April 7, 2016).

Wolfe, Ron. “Houseboat of Light.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 1, 2015, 1E, 6E.

T. French Adams
Jonesboro, Arkansas

Last Updated 4/7/2016

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