Friday, January 7, 2011

Picturing African Americans

I spent a good portion of the week after Christmas trolling antique stores in northern Michigan with All Dressed Up with No Place to Go. I acquired a good amount of loot, one item of which I left up North to be shipped at a later date. For the most part, we patronized antique malls/co-ops--nothing fancy, but certainly worth wading through to uncover some gems. All Dressed Up has a penchant for photographs. Tintypes, daguerreotypes, name it, he looks through it. Up until recently, I thought that these "instant relatives," as some dealers like to call them, were odd objects to collect. They're someone else's relatives...But lately, I have been taking more time to look through some of them with my picking partner. After all, like paintings and print culture, they provide a window into the past.

As a scholar of textiles and costume in particular, All Dressed Up tends to go for images with distinctive costumes or props. He also Hoovers-up soldiers. Images with provenance are also of interest. While in Michigan, we were looking through a stack of photos together when I noticed that at least a fifth of those in a pile of perhaps 100 were of African Americans. All Dressed Up confirmed that that was unusual, so I started to look more closely through those particular images. I set aside three of interest and bought them (total cost, $14 plus tax). At this point, I was accused of invading All Dressed Up's collecting territory and of starting a "distraction collection" of images of African Americans (guilty on both counts, but this 'distraction' collection will probably include images of all individuals with disabilities, ill individuals, etc. ).1 But when you take a look at these photos, I think you'll agree that they have special appeal.

This photo, probably taken in the 1880s or 1890s or so, based on the subject's costume, features a woman wearing a photo portrait miniature. Miniatures boast a long history. For example, sitters for paintings were sometimes pictured wearing painted portrait miniatures, and anyone familiar with twentieth-century political campaigning, is familiar with candidates' portraits on pins. According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British and French first started producing and wearing miniatures at court in the 1520s. By the late nineteenth century, they began to fall out of fashion. Check out the V&A web site for more on the history of miniatures.

This badge was worn by a "guest" at the 1930 44th Annual Session, Supreme Council, Golden Jubilee of the UPEC (Portuguese Union of the State of California. The celebration was held in San Leandro, California. Both the ribbon and the metal attachment indicate that the badge was made by made by B. Pasquale, Badges, Banners, Lapel Buttons of San Francisco. Overall dimensions: approximately 2" x 4".

According to All Dressed Up, photos within photos are rare. Although, we did see a pin photo miniature later in the day displayed inside a glass case, and All Dressed Up recently acquired the photo badge pictured above.

It's more difficult to date these ladies, as their clothing is not particularly fashionable for a specific era. That said, I suspect that the photo was taken in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. I was struck by the group, as the women seem content and friendly. All Dressed Up's mother astutely pointed out that the woman on the far left may have vision problems, as it appears that her right eye my be covered with something. Furthermore, a friend suggested that her hands are situated in a way that also suggests that she may be blind. Click here for an image of women at the Society for the Relief of the Destitute Blind holding their hands similarly. Is anyone familiar with the history of the ways in which blind individuals may or may not have used/posed their hands specifically or body more generally?

Finally, we have a woman who is sporting 1920s or so fashions. I was struck by her melancholy yet serene stare.

Then, I took a closer look.

What are your thoughts on her arms?

These images are beguiling, to be sure, and the later two are related to my current research on the material conditions of changes in the body over time. But the photos caught my attention for another reason. The dealers labeled the photos in a way that was quite distinct from the images of white people. For example, the photo of the woman wearing the photographic miniature was priced at $6 and noted as being a "very stylish black lady." The photo of the woman with (or without?) arms was priced at $4 and described on the price tag as "Black lady all dressed up out by the rose trellis." An image of an African American man All Dressed Up snatched-up (and not pictured here) was also marketed in a similar fashion. The fact is that the photos of white people featured individuals dressed similarly for their portraits, and the dealer did not note that they were "dressed-up."

Although I have pooh-poohed photographs in the past, I am glad that I took a second look. Photographs are a great way to start collecting antiques, particularly if you are on a budget.


1. This article about Oriental rugs introduced the concept of the "distraction collection" to me. A distraction collection is what you collect when you cannot find objects that speak to your true passion. In my case, my "real" collection may be my collection of Empty Space.

Further Reading

To learn more about collecting African American photographs, All Dressed Up recommends Introduction to African American Photographs, 1840-1950: Identification, Research, Care & Collecting, by Ross J. Kelbaugh. I haven't had a chance to survey this yet, but it should give readers an indication of what is most valuable (monetarily) and how to care for your photo collection.

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