Museum  August 31, 2018  Anita Bateman

Increasing Visibility One Snapshot at a Time: “African American Portraits” at the Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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

Vernacular photographs are the lifeblood of affirmative self (re)presentation. For African-Americans, whose relationship with photography has always been complicated—stemming from, among other things, the difficulty with which photographic technology registers melanated skin (see Shirley cards)—portraits are not only personal, but political. Until October 8, the exhibition, African American Portraits: Photographs from the 1940s and 1950s will be on view at The Met Fifth Avenue. Labeled “rare” and “hidden” in some writings of the show, these images which depict black life reinforce the necessity of celebrating black visibility.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Daisy Studio (American, active 1940s). Studio Portrait, 1945. Gelatin silver print. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017.

For whom are they a rarity? And what conditions have made it so?

One only need consult the many intimate moments captured by James VanDerZee or Ellie Lee Weems, Florestine Perrault Collins or Addison N. Scurlock to understand a rich tradition of using studio photography to document change and celebrate special occasions in African American culture and cultures throughout the African diaspora. The Met has a repository of these images as well as photographs from the continent, as seen in their 2015 exhibition In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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

Mostly of unknown sitters, the 150 or so photographs in African American Portraits depict intimate scenes of black couples, children, soldiers, friends, and family. A few known studios, like the Daisy Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, are credited within the images. In an effort to recover information, the Met has enlisted the public to aid in identifying subjects with social media-driven campaigns,#AfricanAmericanPortraits on Twitter and “Can You Help Us?”, an album on Facebook that depends on the hive mind to fill in missing pieces of history. In the gallery and on the internet, these indelible images remind us that although unidentified, they are unforgettable.

About the Author

Anita Bateman

Anita N. Bateman is the Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow in the Prints, Drawings, and Photographs department at RISD Museum and a PhD candidate in Art History at Duke University. She specializes in modern and contemporary African art and art of the African diaspora. Her interests include the history of photography, social justice art, curatorial studies/museum studies, and intersectional feminism (womanism).