How did a photo of Ruth Reynolds’ refrigerator end up at MoMA?

Location, location, location. In 1978, when photographer Joanne Leonard moved to Ann Arbor to join the U-M art faculty, she was working on a project called “Technology in American Life,” funded by a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Leonard emails that she “was looking for home technology and focused particularly on the home appliances that augmented the lives of busy women who often worked outside the home.”

It just so happened that Leonard bought a house on Pomona two doors down from Ruth and Roy Reynolds. “Ruth was gracious and inviting,” recalls Leonard, when she asked to take photos of her new neighbor’s kitchen.

And that’s why “Ruth’s Kitchen” is part of the New York Museum of Modern Art’s current show, “Interiors.” The black-and-white photo shows part of a refrigerator with a radio on top; a calendar and a small painting of birds are visible on a wall. Another image, “Pantry Shelf,” shows neatly arranged canisters, an almost-empty bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup, a waffle iron, a blender, and two bottles of Grandma’s molasses. “Nothing was ever out of place in her home,” Leonard observes.

Leonard points out that we reveal a lot about ourselves by how we arrange our spaces. “Even being allowed to photograph in the kitchen was, for me, a signal of being allowed into a more intimate space …

“The calendar page is that of July 1979 and the name ‘John’ is readable on the rectangle for July 26 of that page. Does the ‘lucky shamrock’ magnet on the refrigerator tell something more about Ruth?” Even an open bag of paper napkins reads to Leonard as a subtle sign of a working woman: “I knew [Reynolds] to be a big supporter of the ecology center and had concern for the environment,” she writes, but “she probably doesn’t have time to press the cloth napkins she might

Roy died in 2007 and Ruth last April. Leonard’s photos captured a bit of her inner life; her obituary sketched her “outer” life as well: writer for the Flint Journal; wife of fellow journalist Roy Reynolds, who went on to work for decades for the Ann Arbor News; mother of an adopted son “who was a handful and required a stay-at-home mother;” and administrative secretary for the media department at the U-M medical school.

In 2020, when Leonard turned eighty, she started asking museums if they’d like to have any of her work. MoMA bought some, and Leonard donated others. Twenty-three are included in “Interiors,” which is focused on the “sociological landscape of life at home. 

“I think the museum is on to something,” reflects Leonard, “where it mentions ‘repetition in the common appliances present in kitchen after kitchen,’ for that is definitely what came to interest me when I photographed appliances in women’s homes.” But though it’s hard to distinguish “one refrigerator [from] the next,” she believes the photos also reveal something about the individuals who owned them—including “Ruth, as my friend and neighbor.”