1900s-- Race in Photography

Clafin University, Orangeburg, South Carolina. Photographer Unknown. Library of Congress.

Kindergarten class at Haines Normal and Industrial Institute. Photographer Unknown. Library of Congress

Kindergarten Class. Library of Congress. Negro Exhibition 1900.

Women's League, Newport, Rhode Island 1900. Negro Exhibition.

Collage of Tuskegee Photographs. Negro Exhibition. 1900. Library of Congress.

I have done this course several times in which I consider the mobilization of racial images in photography in the 20th century. I include both black and white photographers from the turn-of-the-century through the 1950s. The class is chartered via significant landmarks in this photographic history. There is a book I have been wanting to write on the same topic but the obstacles involved with making this project a reality have been overwhelming.

Since the entire purpose of doing this is as a public service for other artists and humanists who need to know more about the availability and suitability of photographs for their work in teaching and writing, it doesn't really make any sense for me to engage in the level of self-sacrifice it would clearly take to pull it off. In other words, I can't really afford to invest any more hard cash into making this happen. And it has become clear to me that books of photography are not ordinarily profitable, and that there isn't anybody out there dying to publish such a book in which high quality reproduction would be a necessity and the audience who would be willing to pay even a token fee is extremely limited. Images are for rich people I guess. I guess I've known this since I was a kid but I have never really been willing to accept it.

Anyhow this blog thing is free and the good people who have access to all these images in the world's archival collections have gone out of their way to make a large quantity of them available to anyone who has a computer and a reasonable amount of patience. What exactly it is you are looking at and what it has to do with you is where my work comes in. Because the relevance of these images to your own experience as a black person is not at all self-evident, even when the focus of the photographs is on black people.

The course I've been teaching and the book I've been planning but will probably never write begins with a chapter or two on the turn-of-the-century in which WEB DuBois's Negro Exhibition at the Paris Exposition is featured. There is a site at the Library of Congress where all the photographs included in the exhibition can be accessed, as well as a lovely little book with a portion of the images beautifully reproduced along with essays by Deborah Willis and David Levering Lewis.

Also, I recommend in this period a heavily illustrated and annotated version of Souls of Black Folk and the photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston reprinted in The Hampton Album exhibition, which took place at the Museum of Modern Art in the 60s. Johnston was commissioned to do this elaborate series by the president of Hampton University. I also take into account other photos taken by the Hampton Camera Club, which was apparently formed at Hampton in the wake of Johnston's visit there.

The Hampton Camera Club often illustrated The Southern Workman (Hampton's newspaper), Paul Lawrence Dunbar stories and poetry, and perhaps other racially inflected publications in the period, which would be considerable. It was the time during which dialect literature was extremely popular, much of it focusing on portraying the lives of the former slaves and their offspring, latter to be known as the New Negro. The writers associated with this school of literature, referred to as the Plantation School by Sterling Brown, includes among the most famous Dunbar, Joel Chandler Harris, Mark Twain and Charles Chesnutt.

The use of dialect in literature seems to have emerged as a shorthand for signaling the distinction between the utterances of the unlettered versus the utterances of everybody else. Black writers, in particular, such as Frances Harper and Pauline Hopkins, were always very careful to make clear distinctions between their speakers of dialect and the other blacks who didn't speak dialect. Their dialect speakers were often endowed with special forms of wisdom having to do with their greater knowledge of history and slavery. Rarely were they ridiculed as they sometimes were in the lesser works of white writers.

The Hampton Club, as evidenced by its illustrations of several of Dunbar's poetry including When Malindy Sings, seems to have emphasized images of blacks from the rural areas located around Hampton, or in other words images of peasants and their homes. I can't look at this stuff without recalling Ralph Ellison's portrayal of Trueblood and his home in the vicinity of Tuskegee.

The houses, which are extraordinary looking--with rickety mud packed chimneys, no windows and no straightlines, are works of art, themselves, probably dating from slavery. The scenarios are clearly posed but to what end is unclear. In any case, this archive remains in the papers of Hampton University. Carrie Mae Weems did some work with this collection in her Hampton Album in which she juxtaposed Johnston's images with other archival images of blacks. Ultimately, Hampton did not allow her to bring her exhibition to their campus because of her criticisms of their history. This is one archival source I would love to examine first hand.

Johnston also did a series of photographs at Tuskeegee commissioned by Booker T. Washington. Washington used the photographer Arthur Bedou (who was black) as well. A year after his death in 1916, Cornelius Marion Battey (also black) was made director of its first photography division. Other major photographers associated with Tuskegee were Leonard G. Hyman, P.H. Polk, and finally Chester Higgins. Tuskegee's archive in Alabama is another place I can see myself doing more research. Tuskegee isn't too far from Gee's Bend, Alabama, the area of the famous quilting community, so such a trip is potentially rich in visual research.


Jessica Hodge said...

Leonard G Hyman was married to my grandmother form 1940 until his death in around 1995. I have periodically attempted to contact Tusfegee without sucess for information about him. I have many of his photos and an old camera. I want to document his work for our family. If you have anysuggestions that may help in this effort,please contact me

Nannie Helen Burroughs Outreach said...

I found this webpage while looking for more information on Leonard Hyman. I have a great contact at Tuskeegee who I am sure would be interested. Jessica Hodge please contact me at hal@rcn.com.

About Me

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I am a writer and a professor of English at the City College of New York, and the CUNY Graduate Center. My books include Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979), Invisibility Blues (1990), Black Popular Culture (1992), and Dark Designs and Visual Culture (2005). I write cultural criticism frequently and am currently working on a project on creativity and feminism among the women in my family, some of which is posted on the Soul Pictures blog.