There are iconic photographs in “Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers,” now open at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Viewers will recognize Ernest C. Withers’ iconic photo from the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, with men carrying signs reading “I AM A MAN.” Withers said he printed the panels in his studio.
The the show includes more photos important moments of the civil rights movement as well as portraits of figures such as Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes and Al Green. There are also photos of artists like Gordon Parks and Endia Beal. But the show focuses on black studio photographers and their portraits. This studio work had an impact on the field of photography, including fine art photography.
“This exhibition is about the work of these photographers in their daily lives and how that work has shaped photography as a whole,” says curator Brian Piper.
The exhibition covers 150 years of photography and includes more than 250 objects. The earliest photos are formal daguerreotypes and tintypes of studio portraits from the 1850s. There were no negatives for the daguerreotypes, so there is a good chance that a portrait of Frederick Douglass was processed by the famous abolitionist – who was one of the most photographed subjects in the 19th century, says Piper.
Many of the studio photographers in the exhibit were working before segregation ended, and these photos stand out as images that black photographers created of black people in a white supremacist society, Piper says. One area of the exhibit is devoted to the studio of influential Washington, DC photographer Addison Scurlock, who established himself as a photographer in 1900. His images are lush portraits using soft focus and delicate retouching.
There are several photos of talented New Orleans photographer Arthur P. Bedou, who got his start around the same time as Scurlock and became one of Booker T. Washington’s trusted photographers. NOMA displays an incredibly crisp 1922 portrait of black nuns in stark white vestments in “Sisters of the Holy Family, Classroom Portrait.” Although Bedou is known for his meticulously posed portraits, he also took pictures at Xavier University football games. A trio of these sepia-toned shots taken in the 1930s show a knack for capturing live action.
‘Picture Man: Portraits by Polo Silk’ opens at NOMA on July 16.
There are also photos of Florestine Perrault Collins, the only black female photographer to have her own studio in New Orleans in the early 1920s. She worked from home, as her husband did not like the idea that she work elsewhere. She allegedly lied about her race in order to apprentice with white photographers.
Morgan and Marvin Smith were identical twins from Kentucky who moved to New York during the Great Depression and later opened a studio next to the Apollo Theater. NOMA has several of their luminary portraits, including Langston Hughes and jazz vibraphonist Milt Jackson. NOMA is also exhibiting Smith’s photos of artist Romare Bearden working in his studio with models. It provides insight into the rise of celebrity photography. The Smiths then closed their studio and moved into television.
There are a few photos from the past few decades, including Polaroids of Sthaddeus Terrell, aka Polo Silk, who has taken portraits at New Orleans clubs and events. There’s Eric Waters’ portrait of Grand Chief Darryl Montana in a lavender-feathered Mardi Gras Indian costume, holding a staff made by artist John Scott. A sharp closing image is Alanna Airitam’s “How to Make a Country”, a self-portrait that evokes the history of portraiture and the presentation of identity.
“Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers” is open through January 8, 2023. Visit noma.org for information.