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Posts Tagged ‘Black History Month’

Dear deadline dodgers,

Regular readers may have noticed my online output has slowed lately, for which I can only blame the short days, the rainy weather, and that fine art some call “dissertating.” Alas, in my delinquency, I missed a chance to offer a Black History Month missive—so I hope you’ll accept this belated attempt.

One of the most vivid records of the African-American past come through studio photography—posed portraits of men and women, often donning their finest suits and dresses. The Duke University Library, for one, holds the beautiful collection of Michael Francis Blake, who opened shop in Baltimore in 1912. The majority of his subjects are now unknown, like the woman on the left who posed in Blake’s studio, and the man on the right, who posed outside.

The Smithsonian, meanwhile, has a striking archive of black D.C. photographer Addison Scurlock. Most of his images come from later decades, and hint at both improvements in photographic technology and in African-American status.  Here are two photographs circa 1940, on the left, one of Sergeant Eddie Gibson, on the right, one of Mrs. Lucretia Guy on the right.

 

One would have to do a closer investigation to see if Blake and Scurlock’s photographs feel more intimate, more knowing, than those of some of his white contemporaries. How did the power dynamics shift, the conversations in the studio change? Case in point, University of Virginia’s digital archive of portraits by white photographer Rufus Holsinger’s work. It includes hundreds of images of African-Americans from Charlottesville and the vicinity, throughout the nineteen-teens, like the two below.

George S. Cook, meanwhile, picked up photography and then taught it to many others throughout the late nineteenth-century South. He would later buy many of his students’ negative, eventually amassing thousands. Virginia Commonwealth University’s Through the Lens of Time puts his collection of African-American portraits on view. They are not not without moral ambiguity. Some of the photographs seem to delight in validating stereotypes, like this one of a boy hugging a watermelon.  Yet others seem intensely vivid, like the one below of a boy in a patchwork hat. The names and identities of the photographers, like their subjects, have since been lost, leaving the images alone to speak for them.Until next time, I remain yours tardily,

Stephen

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