Power and picture-making
‘Framing identity: Representations of empowerment and resilience in the Black experience’ draws inspiration from Frederick Douglass’ views on the potential of photography as a tool for social change. Douglass connected photography to the evolution of community. Samantha Hill, 2019-21 Joyce Bonk Fellow and graduate student at the School of Information, developed the curatorial project at the Clements Library. Click any image to enlarge. View the full online exhibition.
The author’s image: Frontispiece portraits
“No man thinks of publishing a book without sending his face to the world with it. He may be handsome or homely, manly or otherwise; it makes no difference; the face, the inevitable face, must be there to meet the smiles or frowns of his readers.” — Frederick Douglass
The frontispiece portraits featured in the exhibit examine the evolution of Black empowerment documented through memoirs, poetry, and essays on social and political thought. In his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass replaced an artist-illustrated frontispiece with an engraved photograph. This granted him more agency over his representation to the public.
The studio experience: Representing identity through portraiture
Invention of the ambrotype and the tintype reduced the price of commissioning a portrait, but the photograph was still considered a keepsake for personal use. It also created an additional social aspect to collecting photography. It is unknown who took this photo of Phygenau the Ballerina. Location may be the Dante Studio circa 1920.
Curating kinship: Arabella Chapman albums
As exchanging photographs grew in popularity, people desired a method for organizing and protecting their pictures. Arabella Chapman was an African American music teacher from Albany, N.Y., who curated two photo albums from her cartes de visite and tintype collection. Each album is a similar but different collection of constructed communities; one book mostly displays Chapman’s family, while the other features family, friends, and political figures.
Documenting communities: African American photographers
The exhibition showcases the work of photographer Harvey C. Jackson. He established Detroit’s first African American photography studio in 1915. His photographs display concepts of collective memory within community identity by documenting shared activities important to the group. This photo of “older boys and older girls” was taken under the auspices of the YMCA and YWCA in March 1923.
In service for our citizenship: Black Civil War soldiers
Frederick Douglass said: “Let the Black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth or under the earth that can deny he has earned the right to citizenship.”
The 2nd United States Colored Infantry was authorized by the U.S. War Department: Bureau of Colored Troops and organized at Fort Monroe, Va., from Dec. 22, 1863 — Jan. 8, 1864. This soldier is Sgt. George Smith, Co. I, 2nd U.S. Colored Cavalry, 1863.
Groundbreaking publications: The Colored American magazine
“Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers — and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements,” Frederick Douglass wrote in Pictures and Progress.
The Colored American Magazine highlighted Black writers’ literary and political contributions. The magazine included critical essays about race and politics. It also celebrated the social achievements of prestigious Black men and women through photo editorials and society pages.
Artist/educator Samantha Hill has produced archive-based exhibits and educational projects for the Anchorage Museum, the Block Museum at Northwestern University, the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College, and the Center for the Study of Race, Politics & Culture at the University of Chicago. She is the creator of The Kinship Project, a community archive of photographs and artifacts from African American families dated between 1839-2012. Hill’s creative work is featured in Problematizing Public Pedagogy (Routledge Press.) (Image credit: Tony Smith.)