A look back at the importance of Black American studio photography through the decades

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How to Make a Country, 2019. © Alanna Airitam

The significance of Black American studio photography has largely been neglected from the medium’s history. An exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) endeavours to challenge that, exploring the development and influence of these artists’ work throughout the medium’s first century of existence to the present day.

In his 2016 survey Photography in America, author Miles Orvell notes that when the daguerreotype arrived in the United States in 1839, most Black Americans were living as the physical property of whites. That translated into two kinds of depictions of Black people by the new medium: in roles of servitude or as specimens in pseudoscientific enquiries into racial difference undertaken to justify slavery further. In early images, Black people appeared “as objects of analysis, not as sentient human beings,” Orvell writes.

However, as Black photographers began producing daguerreotypes, many trained their lens on their own people, and so began the slow process of wresting the image of the Black American from its racist origins, a process that continues today. In its nascent phase, that process was driven by Black photographers who owned commercial studios, one of the main ways they practised photography for the first 150 years of the art form’s existence. These men and a few women set up businesses in their communities around the country, documenting the people and life that unfolded there.

Those photographers, their creative output, that process of reclamation and its effect on photographic practice and American culture are the subjects of an exhibition at New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA). Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers gathers images produced between 1840 and today by names familiar (James Van Der Zee, Addison Scurlock) and less so (Robert and Henry Hooks, Florestine Perrault Collins). The show guides visitors through the rich world of visual expression created by this under-celebrated American cohort. The experience is immersive: alongside more than 250 photographs, there is studio ephemera, equipment and a life-sized reproduction of a studio waiting room.

In the hectic days following the show’s opening this autumn, Brian Piper, the exhibition’s curator and the assistant curator of photographs at NOMA, talked to us about his vision for the show and why it was a critical narrative to bring to the public and the historical record.

Portrait of a young woman dressed in white, 1920-1928. © Florestine Perrault Collins. The Historic New Orleans Collection
Untitled (Bride and Groom), 1926. Museum purchase, City of New Orleans Capital Funds and P. Roussel Norman Fund, 76.53 © James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“The studio photographer became a point of pride and a source for affirming images for Black Americans. Self-representation was very important, but it was also a metaphorical self-possession for a figure like Frederick Douglass.”

Sala Elise Patterson: How was this exhibition born?

Brian Piper: First, I must say that Dr Deborah Willis laid the groundwork for this field, helping to create the study of Black photography. What first drew me to this project and topic personally was thinking about Black photography studios as potential places for the development of culture and political life as well as for commerce and art. The photo studio was where a diverse cross-section of Black Americans would come during the first century following photography’s invention because it was less common for people to own a camera in general. And having your portrait made was so important for Black Americans during this period.

As the project progressed, it became more of a story about the role of these spaces in American photographic history and the work that was done there. That includes the extent to which these photographers were included or not in the stories that mainstream Western art museums tell about the history of American photography.


SP: Tell me about the importance placed on portraiture within the Black community in photography’s early days.

BP: Many thinkers and leaders, from Frederick Douglass to Ida B Wells to WEB Du Bois, articulated how mainstream visual culture would not treat Black people and Black bodies with care or affirmation. So the studio photographer became a point of pride and a source for affirming images for Black Americans. Self-representation was very important, but it was also a metaphorical self-possession for a figure like Douglass.

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.

Photography and power are wrapped up in one. The camera has historically been used in negative ways towards Black people. Taking control of that was a powerful thing that these photographers were engaged in.”

SP: As traditional as many of these images appear, they are quite radical. Can you talk about that? 

BP: Photography and power are wrapped up in one. The camera has historically been used in negative ways towards Black people. Taking control of that was a powerful thing that these photographers were engaged in. One photographer in the show that stands out in that regard is a contemporary artist, Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. He is a portrait photographer who makes images that tell us about the sitter but allow that individual to maintain some privacy; to keep something for themselves. Many of the people he photographs are Black women and Black queer people. He’s thinking about how cameras, portraiture and photography have been employed to dehumanise these individuals.

We’ve also included work from Endia Beal from a series where she photographed Black women in their homes in front of a backdrop that looks like it could be from one of these commercial studios. But it’s essentially a picture of a cubicle farm. Part of the work is their testimony about working in white corporate workplaces. So there are photographers who – whether it’s a nod or a more explicit reference – are thinking about the structures of portrait photography and bringing them to work that is more consciously fine art. But also, in some ways, more overtly political. That engagement and thinking will push the field forward for years to come. 


SP: Were early studio portraits something that people, regardless of class and standing in the Black community, would have prized? 

BP: That is something the show also tries to go into: that as much as they were liberatory, in some ways, these spaces could also be very restrictive in terms of class and gender prescriptions. Respectability politics was a significant factor in how people in this era wanted their photographs to look. So it was uncommon to see different representations of occupations, economic levels or gender and sexuality expressions. They appear in some images, which are some of the most interesting works in the exhibition. Indeed, as much as these studios were aspirational, they could also be restrictive to parts of Black identity. [Cultural theorist and activist] bell hooks has written about how these positive images were incredibly powerful, moving and important in terms of self-worth and self representation. But in some ways they might have precluded different kinds of Black expressive culture.

Kennedy, 2016 © Endia Beal
Marvin Painting a Self-Portrait, ca. 1940 Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library Photograph © Morgan and Marvin Smith.

SP: How did you decide on which photographers to include?

BP: The photographers we chose were adept at making portraits but also at fine finishing techniques and different editorial tropes. They’re also very good at making photographs outside of the studio. I wanted to show how those two sides of their practices were inextricable. I also wanted to illustrate that it was happening across the country, in every region and some cities. It gives people a chance to think about what differences existed in different spaces or communities and how the photographic output of these men and women reflected that.


SP: What is the gender breakdown of photographers in the show? 

BP: I would have liked to include more women whose names were on the front of the studio. But the work in portrait studios – by Black and white photographers – was often very gendered. Studio portraits involved retouching the negative to mask imperfections and sometimes tinting the prints. Often that work was completed by women. They’re all part of this story, but they don’t necessarily have their names on the studio. One example of a woman-led studio that we have been able to include was Florestine Perrault Collins, here in New Orleans. She ran several successful studios under her name, initially in her home and then in a commercial space. When she opened her studio in 1920, she was the first Black woman photographer in the city and was the only one for quite some time.


SP: How did most of these photographers come to the discipline? 

BP: It changed over time, like most things. Augustus Washington took it up when people would go to the optician, order a lens, build their own camera and learn how to make daguerreotypes or have somebody teach them. He learned so that he could support himself through Dartmouth College. James Presley Ball learned from another Black photographer from Boston who came to Virginia and taught him. Then Ball moved around, settled in Cincinnati, taught his brother and Alexander Thomas. Eventually Ball taught his own son and daughter to make photographs. Addison Scurlock learned from photographer Moses Rice then taught his sons, Robert and George. So it would often spread through families, networks and apprenticeships.

As Black photographers began to grow in number, several of them learned from each other. That’s an important story because film technology was not designed to properly render Black people’s skin tones, and that information was not in trade manuals. So Black photographers had to learn from each other and through practice to effectively photograph their customers. After World War Two, several studios started formal education programmes to train Black veterans who had come home to be photographers. It was also a very savvy business move because these veterans were coming home with money from the GI Bill and looking for places to spend it. So it was a way to buoy their studio businesses and create more photographers. Robert Scurlock started the Capital School of Photography in Washington, DC, in 1948, an integrated and co-educational school.

Finally, a number of photographers in the show either learned to be photographers or honed their craft in the armed services. Ernest Withers, for one. Austin Hansen started taking photographs as a young man in the Virgin Islands and then joined the Navy and learned more. Marvin Smith joined the Navy and taught other sailors how to photograph. So that was also a driver of photographic industries in Black communities after the World Wars.

The Gold Rush – Xavier University of Louisiana Football Squad, Image Courtesy of Xavier University of Louisiana, Archives & Special Collections © Arthur P. Bedou
James Presley Ball, Alexander S. Thomas, ca. late 1850s. Cincinnati Art Museum Gift of James M Marrs.

SP: One point you have made is that Black studio photographers have been operating at the medium’s cutting edge since its invention. What has been the effect on fine art photography?

BP: While studio photographers, especially Black studio photographers, have been thought of as outside the developments in ‘art photography’, they’re absolutely pushing it forward. They’re cognisant of everything that’s happening in the field and are capable of adopting what would have been referred to elsewhere as pictorial techniques, like shallow depth-of-field, highly retouched negatives and things that people often associate with pictorial photography as practised by Alfred Stieglitz, early Imogen Cunningham and others. They’re bringing that into the portrait studio. But they’re also able to apply what they’re doing in their community for event photography or advertising. Work by other photographers in the exhibition falls under modernism, focusing on form and light. Everything we are used to talking about in photography, they’re doing it and pushing it forward.


SP: What do you hope the effect of this show will be for the museum and the community? 

BP: For so long, photo studios were neglected from the art museum because they were considered commercial. I hope the exhibition makes the point that these photographs can be for the everyday, but they can be spectacular too. The show is also an effort to expand what people can expect to see on the wall of a museum – expand who is in that picture, who made that picture and the number of stories we’re telling at NOMA. People are rethinking what museums are for and what they should do. And I hope this exhibition is part of that effort.

Finally, I hope the show will enrich people’s understanding of photographic history and that several of the photographers get their own solo exhibitions. While some of the names are familiar worldwide, others deserve greater recognition. I hope that a number of projects will come out of this one

Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers runs until January 8, 2023 at New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA).