It’s now a principle of photography: Images created to demean or deny the humanity of others will, with the passage of time, become understood as evidence of the prejudices and inhumanity of their makers and their intended audience. Curator Tanya Sheehan makes this point in her essay in Double Exposure: Pictures with Purpose, the latest volume in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s series of books on the history of photography. Writing about racist stereographs of African Americans that were created for, and circulated among, whites in the early 1900s, Sheehan notes that the pictures “ultimately reveal more about whiteness than blackness, insofar as they express white anxieties about ‘others.’”
Pictures with Purpose contrasts these white supremacist images with photographs made by and for African Americans from the advent of photography through the post-Civil War period. It looks at the photographs created by black professional photographers from the early days of daguerreotypes onward, and the role photographs played in celebrating black families and achievement, and in challenging the way mainstream society depicted African Americans. There are images of well-known figures such as Frederick Douglass, who is believed to be the most-photographed person of the 19th century, W. E. B. Du Bois, Mary Church Terrell and Booker T. Washington; portraits of prominent politicians, community leaders, lawyers and soldiers; and vernacular images collected by African Americans, including portraits of Southern black elites from a collection of cartes-de-visite and cabinet cards assembled by a doctor in Nashville, Tennessee. These vernacular collections, note curators Laura Coyle and Michèle Gates Moresi, are “valuable today because they help restore people to their rightful place in history. At the same time, they challenge assumptions that black communities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were impoverished and socially inferior.”
Throughout the book, the work and perspective of black photographers is emphasized for its importance both to African American communities of their time, and also to history. An image of a sharecropper made by Cornelius M. Battey, for instance, is particularly striking. It depicts the man, a former slave, as “poor yet dignified,” Coyle and Moresi write. The image offered Battey’s black audiences an “artful remaking of the stereotypical image of the Old Negro.”
This latest installment in the Double Exposure series of accessibly priced photographic history books is a great introduction to the earliest photographs in the museum’s collection, and to the ways photographs by and of African Americans operated early in our country’s history.
Double Exposure: Pictures with a Purpose, Early Photographs from the National Museum of African American History and Culture
By Tanya Sheehan, Michèle Moresi and Laura Coyle
D. Giles Ltd