Anonymous Black American Portraits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Unknown American maker. Studio portrait, 1940s–50s. Photograph: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Author: Victor Ochieng

It’s indeed true that pictures tell a thousand stories and Fredrick Douglass was not wrong in his speech when he said, “To the eye and spirit, pictures are just what poetry and music are to the ear and heart.” The words in his speech have become the inspiration behind the African American Portraits: Photographs from the 1940s and 1950s exhibition. The exhibition which is set to open on June 26th at the Museum of Art in New York City has more than 150 studio portraits from the mid-20th century.

The pictures exude the beginning of change, growth and the fear behind stepping into another chapter of life. They offer a priceless view of African American life during the Second World War. The Met’s photography curator, Jeff Rosenheim, said, “These photos have a certain quality and beguiling characteristic that separate themselves from the huge population of images we see every day. They tell stories that other stories from the same time do not.”

The author of 10 books on Depression-era photojournalist Walker Evans, is the one who also curated the American Civil War exhibition from 2013 in the same Museum. Though the exhibition displays portraits of anonymous African-Americans, one of the studios they used is Daisy Studio. The studio is easily identified because in each of the photos they took, their mark is at the bottom left corner; the brand’s logo on a wooden slab.

The pictures show a deeper story showing the uncertainty that covered an era when the pain of the World War was fresh, yet the hope of a great future was setting in. Rosenhein said, “They’re leaving home for the first time, their future is uncertain. Without too much fanfare and with economy of means, it makes these pictures just stunning. They allow us to look at a time and a place that changed the country. It’s on the cusp of the civil rights era and there was great stress because of the war, but it was also a time of introspection.”

The subjects in the portraits are unknown and being that the pictures was taken in their early 20s and teens. They may now be in their 80s or 90s, considering that the portraits were taken around the 1940s and 1950s. According to the Museum, the only way to identify them is through the visitors who may be able to know them as friends or family.

“We hope that with the public’s attention, we can identify some of the subjects, as most of them are unknown. People might be able to recognize a family member or a friend and attach a name to these faces. The power and meaning of these collections are sites of collective memory. Most of the people are at the end of a long life right now and the photos are moving around as part of their natural progress,” Rosenheim said.

There was the civil rights struggle for African Americans, not just voting rights but every other freedom. In these pictures, we see them in reflection of where they are and what their conditions are.”




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