NOMA opens 'Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers' – NOLA.com

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There are iconic photographs in “Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers,” now open at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Viewers will recognize Ernest C. Withers’ landmark photo of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike, with men carrying signs bearing the words “I AM A MAN.” Withers said he printed the signs at his studio.

The show includes more photos of important moments in the civil rights movement as well as portraits of figures such as Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes and Al Green. There also are photos by artists including Gordon Parks and Endia Beal. But the show focuses on Black studio photographers and their portraits. That studio work had an impact on the field of photography, including art photography.

“This show is about the work these photographers did in their daily lives and how that work shaped photography as a whole,” says curator Brian Piper.

The show spans 150 years of photography and includes more than 250 objects. The earliest photos are formal studio portrait daguerreotypes and tintypes from the 1850s. There were no negatives for daguerreotypes, so there’s a good chance a portrait of Frederick Douglass was actually handled by the renowned abolitionist — who was one of the most photographed subjects in the 19th century, Piper says.

Many of the studio photographers in the exhibit worked prior to the end of segregation, and these photos are notable as images Black photographers created of Black people in a white supremacist society, Piper says. One area of the expo is devoted to the studio of influential Washington, D.C., photographer Addison Scurlock, who had established himself as a photographer by 1900. His images are lush portraits using soft focus and delicate retouching.

There are several photos by the talented New Orleans photographer Arthur P. Bedou, who got his start at about the same time as Scurlock and became one of Booker T. Washington’s trusted photographers. NOMA displays an amazingly sharp 1922 portrait of Black nuns in crisp white habits in “Sisters of the Holy Family, Classroom Portrait.” Though Bedou was known for his meticulously posed portraits, he also took photos at Xavier University football games. A trio of such sepia-toned shots taken in the 1930s show a flair for capturing live action.

‘Picture Man: Portraits by Polo Silk’ opens at NOMA on July 16.

There also are photos by Florestine Perrault Collins, the only Black woman photographer to have her own studio in New Orleans in the early 1920s. She worked out of her home, because her husband didn’t like the idea of her working elsewhere. She reportedly lied about her race in order to apprentice with white photographers.

Morgan and Marvin Smith were identical twins from Kentucky who moved to New York during the Great Depression and later opened a studio next to the Apollo Theater. NOMA has several of their portraits of luminaries including Langston Hughes and jazz vibraphonist Milt Jackson. NOMA also displays Smith photos of artist Romare Bearden working in his studio with models. It gives a glimpse of the rise of celebrity photography. The Smiths later closed their studio and got in TV.

There are some photos from recent decades, including Polaroids from Sthaddeus Terrell, aka Polo Silk, who took portraits at New Orleans clubs and events. There’s Eric Waters’ portrait of Big Chief Darryl Montana in a lavender plumed Mardi Gras Indian suit, holding a staff made by artist John Scott. A pointed closing image is Alanna Airitam’s “How to Make a Country,” a self-portrait that invokes the history of portraiture and the presentation of identity.

“Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers” is open through Jan. 8, 2023. Visit noma.org for information.



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