By April Rapier
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, recently hosted an exhibition entitled A Century of Black Photography: 1840-1960, curated by Valencia Hollins Coar. It coincided with African American Photographers of the Southwest: 1850-1984 at Texas Southern University, an exhibition and series of special events.
Blacks have been in the mainstream of photography from its beginnings. It is hypothesized that Jules Lion (French), working in New Orleans, might have brought the daguerreotype to the U.S. prior to the publication of Louis Daguerre’s book in 1939. No aspect of life, no technique was omitted, although opportunity for study was minimal. The accomplishments are stunning.
These exhibitions are glorious and long overdue celebrations of photographers whose merit was overlooked because of the color of their skin, it is a tragedy that so many of the negatives, and miscellaneous data, all of vast historical importance, seem to be permanently lost. In the case of the exhibition at the MFAH, organized by the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, the country was combed in an exhaustive effort to seek out artists of local, national, and international re known. Yet the task is a difficult and ongoing one. It is a broad historical overview, and does not pretend to be in any way complete In fact, included in the catalogue is an index (by state) of photographers not exhibited, about which precious little is known. It is stated that the subject, its characters and any remaining records are in desperate need of further research. (Curiosity prompts the mention of a lack of female photographers.) The time span was enormous, the historical period complex, and the accompanying range of emotions spoke of an aesthetic comparable to any other place or time.
Many issues emerged in the course of putting together the exhibition and catalogue. Attention was drawn (by the curator as well as Angela Davis and Michael Winston, among others) to the perpetuation of race labeling. Yet the very thing that caused this work to be SO long overlooked by museums has now earned it a place in American history and art (a fact of little comfort to those photographers, scholars, and archivists who, for years, have been proponents of research and conservation efforts). It is also assumed that this limited number of artists is representative of a century of work that spanned geographical, financial, cultural, and educational diversities: that there is a unifying aesthetic to be extracted seems to be an impossible assumption. Practical considerations dominated the photography of the period, leaving behind far more studio and documentary-style examples than, say, photojournalistic or "fine art" experimentation. Yet the uniqueness lies in the subjectivity of the vantage point, the lack of sterile conformity. We learned so much more thanks to the artists' interjection of visual commentary. Perhaps this has to do with the high cross over between painting and photography.
It is distressing that the exhibition travelled to only seven museums around the country. A body of work on the order of this beauty and importance should be fully accessible, most especially since its application is so varied, and offers so much to learn from. I was told that the catalogue is out of print, which further limits seeing a first hand viewpoint of history in clear and poignant terms.