By the end of Brian Piper’s research trip to Emory University’s Rare Book Library, he had already seen much of its historic photo collection. But then a folder landed at his table, containing a striking full-length portrait of a gentleman in hunting gear with dogs, a shotgun and a bundle of dead birds. The gelatin silver print was produced by Washington, DC-based photographer Addison Scurlock, who captured models such as WEB Du Bois, Marian Anderson and Martin Luther King Jr., yet Piper, who specializes in African American studio photography, had never seen an Image Scurlock quite like this.

“Scurlock was known to be a bit of an autocrat in the studio. This [sitter] had enough influence or was willing to pay to let him insert a lot of his creative vision into the way he saw himself,” says Piper, co-curator of the upcoming exhibit. Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers at the New Orleans Museum of Art (September 16, 2022-January 8, 2023). “It’s done in that classic Scurlock style, very polished. I had to walk away from the table, it’s really, really great.

Arthur P. Bedou, Sisters of the Holy Family, class portrait1922 XULA University Archives and Special Collections. Image courtesy of Xavier University of Louisiana, Archives & Special Collections © Arthur P. Bedou

This regal likeness of an anonymous man will be seen in Called on camera and summarizes the show’s goal of illustrating the self-representation of black individuals and communities, through the lens of professional black photographers, since the medium’s earliest days. Like this hunting portrait, many of the more than 170 vintage prints in the exhibition are drawn from archives and history museums and rarely displayed in art museums. “The photographs belong to the historical archives,” says Piper. “But, if we are doing our job properly as historians of photography in an art museum, we must also show them here.”

This exhibition is the first to focus on black American studio photographers from the 19th century onwards, demonstrating their activity since the introduction of the camera in the United States (which preceded the end of slavery by more than 20 years). “You’d think we’d be past the point where a show like this is groundbreaking, but it’s not,” says co-curator Russell Lord.

James Presley Ball, Alexander S.Thomaslate 1850s Cincinnati Museum of Art, gift of James M Marrs

Photographers such as Augustus Washington, James Presley Ball, James C. Farley, and the Goodridge brothers began working soon after daguerreotypes arrived in America in 1839, with most of this first generation of professional photographers active in the North or the Midwest. As for the models, portraits were a way of asserting their personality. Mounting evidence shows that slaves openly and covertly sought out photographic portraits of themselves in the American South.

More than three dozen photographers from across the United States are included in the exhibit, some nationally known and others regionally active such as Robert and Henry Hooks in Memphis, and Morgan and Marvin Smith in New York. A rare example of a woman-owned studio is that of Florestine Perrault Collins, whose shop was prominent in early 20th century New Orleans. The survey covers a range of formats, from daguerreotypes and panoramic photographs to tintypes and hand-painted gelatin silver prints.

Florestine Perrault Collins, Portrait of a young woman dressed in white1920-1928 The New Orleans Historical Collection, 2001

There are several formats of portraits of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who is considered the most photographed American of the 19th century and posed for four black photographers during his lifetime.

Other lesser-known images are on display for the first time, such as original prints from the Hooks Brothers Studio in Memphis, established in 1907 and among the oldest black-owned businesses in that city.

Hooks Brothers Studio (Robert and Henry Hooks), Al Green in the Hooks Brothers studiocirca 1968 Collection of Andrea and Rodney Herenton.
The Hooks Brothers Photography Collection, consisting of original photographs, negatives, equipment and ephemera, was acquired by RWS Company, LLC in 2018.

“The vision of the exhibition is to adjust the historical narrative of photography by bringing this work into our understanding of what makes photography ‘art’ today, in part because [studio portraiture] was an important way for black Americans to participate in photography,” says Piper.

“Marginalized stories and marginalized objects go hand in hand, because if you don’t expand the types of photography you show in an art museum, you won’t be able to include all of those stories,” Lord says. “You often hear the term ‘democracy’ applied to photography, but you don’t see it illustrated in art museums.

Morgan and Marvin Smith, Untitled, [Marvin and Morgan Smith and Sarah Lou Harris Carter]1940 Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library Photograph © Morgan and Marvin Smith.

Austin Hansen, Eartha Kitt gives a dance lesson at the Harlem YMCAcirca 1955 Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library Photograph by Austin Hansen used with permission from Joyce Hansen.

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