STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON
For 21st Century Media
The rich storytelling of African American portraiture is the focus of “An Exhibition of African American Photographers from the Daguerreian to the Digital Eras” at Haverford College. The exhibit features 60 pieces — photographs and accompanying historical items — from the college’s permanent collections.
“It’s an area that we’ve been collecting in for a long time and it’s a chance to show the range and strength of the collection,” said humanities professor and photography curator William Earle Williams. “You will see some of the best that’s been done in photography and you’re able to see the major trends in it, too, that have been practiced and been done by African Americans.”
A loose portrait print recently discovered in the manuscript collection of Phillis Wheatley will be on display for the first time.
“It’s the earliest documented example of a fine art portrait of an African in Colonial America,” Williams said.
Also displayed will be an oval sixth plate daguerreotype, “Mulatto Woman,” by James P. Ball. (A daguerreotype is photograph made on a piece of silver or piece of copper covered in silver. The technique was popular in the mid 1800s.) That’s the earliest photograph in the exhibition and one of the smallest.
One of the largest is contemporary and nationally-known photographer Donald Camp’s “Brother Who Taught Me to See/ Herbert Camp.” It’s one of five portraits of his siblings, all who touched his life in various ways. This brother taught him about art.
When Camp was about 8 years old, Herbert came home from studying at Columbia University for Christmas. He brought his books with him, and Camp tried to read them. He didn’t understand what he was seeing.
“He started explaining it to me: the weight of a color, the position, things about composition,” Camp said. “That was my first real art lesson, and I’ve been struggling with and learning that ever since.”
His siblings, as described by the other portrait titles, taught him how to be noble, to think, to ride a bike, and to dance, he said.
“I was fortunate to be the youngest one,” Camp said. “I learned from them all.”
The portraits of his brothers are the first images Camp made, he said. He used what is now the technique he’s known for: the photo focuses on the person’s face, looking directly into the camera; and his printing method is based on a 19th century process that uses photosensitized casein (a milk protein) and earth pigment.
Camp, who worked as a photojournalist prior to becoming a full-time fine arts photographer, has been honored with fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and other organizations, and is the subject of an American Artist Oral History at the Smithsonian. His work hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and other well-known institutions. He thinks it’s important to have exhibits like the one at Haverford to ensure that African Americans are seen.
“In museums, we very seldom see more than one, maybe two, images of African Americans,” he said. “It’s important. Images can help determine who you are.”
Camp remembers when he worked for the Evening and Sunday Bulletin and they printed a photo of a black postman, a positive image, which was (and still is) rare.
“The only time images of us are seen, most of the time, in the newspaper is in negative form,” he said.
And even photos in a newspaper are art.
“People don’t want to think about that. People think about fine art,” he said. “But whatever influences people is art, and that’s images they see daily.”
The history of African Americans as it relates to photography is there, and could influence people, but many aren’t aware of it.
“This is why this show is extremely important,” Camp said. “We’ve been producing images and portraits, but we’re not seen.”
Williams hopes that this exhibit will help to change that, and to educate people on the contributions to portraiture and photography that African Americans have made.
“We have quite a large body of work that’s world class, that people of African descent have produced,” he said. “We celebrate that.”
IF YOU GO
What: An Exhibition of African American Photographers from the Daguerreian to the Digital Eras
When: Now through April 25. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; noon to 5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
Where: Haverford College’s Atrium Gallery, Marshall Fine Arts Center, 370 Lancaster Ave., Haverford.
Info.: Call (610) 896-1000 or visit www.haverford.edu.