The Black American studio photographers who transformed history

The Black American studio photographers who transformed history
Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers celebrates figures like Frederick Douglass, who seized photography’s radical, emancipatory potential.

The arrival of the daguerreotype in 1839 signalled a revolution. Bringing art and commerce together under one roof, the photo studio democratised portraiture. Both affordable and accessible, photography reclaimed representation from the exclusive purview of the ruling class.

In the United States, Black photographers paved their own path before and after Emancipation, creating a wealth of social and cultural histories woven together in Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers (Yale University Press). The book features more than 100 photographs which trace the evolution of the medium in the work of artists including James Van Der Zee, Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks, and Kwame Brathwaite.

Hooks Brothers Studio (Robert and Henry Hooks) Untitled [Students looking at photographs], ca. 1950. Collection of Andrea and Rodney Herenton

The first century of photography in the United States was able to documented the transition from slavery to segregation. In the hands of the ruling class, photography was used as a tool to oppress and uphold the status quo. But some, like Frederick Douglass, took matters into their own hands – and Douglass become the most photographed person of the 19th century.

“Frederick Douglass was very sophisticated in his use of photography as a political weapon to challenge the crude stereotypes that degraded Black people,” says John Edwin Mason, Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

For Called to the Camera, Mason contributed an essay on Henry Martin, a Black man born in 1825 who spent the first four decades of his life in slavery. During that time, Martin was leased to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and was formally employed following emancipation. He rose to head janitor and bell ringer at the whites-only institution at the turn of the 20th century.

Although he never learned to read or write, Martin, like Douglass, understood the power of portraiture and the ways in which it could be used to provide powerful counter-narratives to the prevalence of racist propaganda popularised through blackface, then the most popular form of entertainment nationwide.

“[Martin’s] work at the University undoubtedly exposed him to the walls of the rotunda, decorated with powerful white men starting with Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University,” says Mason. “Martin knew what a portrait of dignity and power looked like and decided to get one for himself.”

Elliott Jerome Brown Jr, (American, born 1993) Oftentimes, justice for Black people takes form of forgiveness, allowing them space to reclaim their bodies from wrongs made against them, 2018 © Elliott Jerome Brown Jr

Martin understood the power of a photograph lay in its function as an artefact which could be passed from one generation to the next. One day in 1897, Martin made affluent alumnus David Culbreth an offer he couldn’t refuse: a portrait, which he sent the following autumn. Culbreth not only kept the photograph, he wrote fondly of the encounter in his memoirs.

“It’s a remarkable studio portrait that shows Henry Martin completely divorced from the way that he was usually photographed as a servant — and he did this at least twice,” Mason reveals.

“The Special Collections just received a new set of personal papers from another alumnus and it has a different formal portrait of Henry Martin, styled to look like a president or Supreme Court justice. And it all starts with him understanding the power of visual representation.”

Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers is out now, published by Yale University Press.

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