Exhibition Review: African American Portraits

Exhibition Review: African American Portraits

 Unknown American maker. Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017. Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Unknown American maker. Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017.
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

By Labanya Maitra

The visual medium has been an integral part of record-keeping throughout history. From the days of cave paintings and engravings on stone, the visual medium has evolved in technology, but the idea behind it remains the same. Using photography as a documentary tool is evident of this evolution.

The mid-twentieth century in the United States was a time of transition. In the midst of World War II, American society was undergoing a drastic socio-cultural change. In an effort to document this, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has curated over 300 African-American studio portraits from the 1940s and 1950s, giving an insight into the life and emotions of the time.

 Unknown American maker. Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017. Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Unknown American maker. Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017.
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The exhibition, African American Portraits: Photographs from the 1940s and 1950s, is on display from June 26 through October 8, 2018, and showcases over 150 of the studio portraits curated over three years.

The photographs are taken in a studio setting set against elaborate backgrounds. While the photographs were taken in black and white, some of them are elaborately hand colored, possibly at the request of the person being photographed.

 Unknown American maker. Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017. Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Unknown American maker. Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017.
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wives had their husbands photographed before they headed out to war; fathers had their children photographed to take with them to war. “Pictures have meaning,” said curator Jeff L. Rosenheim, Joyce Frank Menschel Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs. People used these portraits to record their presence, share them with loved ones, and connect with other people during times of cultural transition.

The portraits show a myriad of people from different walks of life. An army soldier and his wife, photographed against a painted tropical background and palm trees, graduate students, sailors, couples, families, friends, each have a place in the exhibition.

 Daisy Studio (American, active 1940s). Studio Portrait, 1944. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017. Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Daisy Studio (American, active 1940s). Studio Portrait, 1944. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017.
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of these portraits are the little messages written on the backs of the photos. The back of a colored photograph of a young woman in a flannel skirt read “To Mr. James Jones from Mrs. Maude Jones. Remember always I love you.” The war took American soldiers to Italy, and this photograph followed them, as is evident by a second handwriting on the back, which read: Sent to me in Sicily.

Declarations of love emerged as the most popular messages on the back of portraits. A portrait of a couple sharing a chair was heavily inscribed, but most of it illegible. The only legible line was “I love a Girl/ Miss Parker/ Mr. Huff.”

 Daisy Studio (American, active 1940s). Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017. Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Daisy Studio (American, active 1940s). Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017.
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Most of the portraits are laterally inversed, a detail that’s easy to miss but is evident in the reversed text on soldiers’ uniforms and a married couple who seem to be wearing their wedding rings on their right hands.

A few of the portraits are hand colored using transparent oil colors, popularly sold by Kodak. “Red lips, light blue earrings and a light blue handbag,” exclaimed Rosenheim looking at a portrait of a woman. “And a little bit of rouging in the cheeks,” he chuckled.

 Unknown American maker. Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017.  Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Unknown American maker. Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017. 
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Most studios at the time offered props, which people used as non-verbal means of communication. Most of the studios, however, are not known, and the majority of people photographed are also unidentified. The in-depth project is still in progress as they try to identify the studios and people in these photographs. There’s a sign at the front that asks people for help identifying the people photographed.

The largest collection of African-American portraits, African American Portraits: Photographs from the 1940s and 1950s documents photography as record-keeping at its finest.

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