Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers
On ViewNew Orleans Museum Of Art
September 16, 2022–January 8, 2023
—When we concentrate on photography, then, we make it possible to see the walls of photographs in black homes as critical intervention, a disruption of white control over Black images.”
- bell hooks, “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life”
A glowing newlywed couple, a graduate in her cap and gown, two portraits of one young boy smiling wide—a small dog sits on his lap in the first, he wears a cowboy costume in the other: records of major life events, taken also for pleasure. Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers brings together nearly 250 unique photographs, pulled from archives and personal collections alike, to trace the histories of images taken by and for Black sitters from the nineteenth century to present. This expansive exhibition deftly engages with the personal, political, and artistic features of the medium while presenting photography as not just an instrument for the documentation of reality, but for the fashioning of self and history, wielded jointly by both photographer and subject.
Curated by Dr. Brian Piper, Assistant Curator of Photographs at NOMA, the exhibition begins where nineteenth-century commercial photography began—with the daguerreotype. Under low lighting, the metallic images softly reflect Black men and women dressed in their finest clothing, reading a book or playing an instrument, as captured by Black photographers Augustus Washington, J.P. Ball, and Alexander Thomas, located in the Northeast. Along with several daguerreotypes of Frederick Douglass, the most photographed American of the nineteenth century, these objects represent photography as a tool for the assertion of one’s autonomy, in opposition, for example, to Caregiver with Child (c.1855), in which a Black woman’s face is obscured by the head of the young white child she holds on her lap, as the camera captures her with or without her consent.
We see also how photography is reclaimed as generative, a means for creation and expression beyond strict accuracy. In the commercial studios that proliferated in the first decades of the twentieth century, photographers such as James Van Der Zee and Addison Scurlock offered elaborate backdrops and props for staging narrative scenes, further manipulating the image through compound negatives and hand tinting. The exhibition foregrounds these acts of making: proof sheets, photos pre- and post-retouching, a lens mount made from a cigar box and a tartar sauce lid, a row of enlargers. Artist’s tools.
Called to the Camera stands out largely for how closely it looks at Black studio photographers working in the South, highlighting the Hooks Brothers in Memphis and Rev. Henry Clay Anderson in Greenville, MS, but takes particular care to detail photography’s role in the everyday lives of Black New Orleanians. A dozen works by Arthur P. Bedou, pulled from the archives at Xavier University of Louisiana and the Historic New Orleans Collection, display XULA football games with bleachers full of spectators and students working in the school chemistry laboratory in 1936. Florestine Perrault Collins operated several photo studios from 1920 to 1949, then the only Black woman in the city working as a photographer. The work of Nolan Marshall and Nolan Marshall Jr., who, starting in 1948, dominated yearbook photography in public and parochial schools across New Orleans for decades, takes the form of prom portraits.
On the second floor, the exhibition is accompanied by Picture Man: Portraits by Polo Silk featuring the instant-film photography of Selwhyn Sthaddeus “Polo Silk” Terrell, snapshots capturing nights out at hip-hop and Bounce shows in nineties New Orleans. Groups pose in front of airbrushed backdrops painted by Polo Silk’s cousin Otis Spears with bubble letter titles like “Bling Bling.” The images are rooted in the time, the place, the individuals, and collage into walls of photographs echoing the critical intervention described by bell hooks: artifacts of living and making and thriving that go further than disruption, carving out a redirection of historical narrative.