With all of our fussing over codecs and bitrates, and demanding 4K 120 fps at every latest camera release, it can be good practice to look back at where some of this technology started in order to get a bit of perspective. This beautifully edited video illustrates perfectly how the likes of Canon and Sony are most certainly standing on the shoulders of giants.
Photography struggles with truth as a concept. With other art forms, truth is generally a non-issue. We do not question whether a painting is real. We do not question whether a dance is real. We are generally able to discern fictional texts from nonfiction; furthermore, we’re generally able to sift through multiple nonfiction texts and combine them with our own experiences to arrive at a conclusion of truth. But not with photography.
The evolution of radio, film and television in the 20th century only amplified demeaning images, providing “proof” to white Americans of Black inferiority and a justification for denying them their rights.
Today, many of these same tired images persist and continue to feed baseless perceptions. A 2017 study showed that the news media continue to “inaccurately portray Black families as more poor, criminal and unstable than white families.”
When those malicious images first started to proliferate, Black Americans found an especially effective way to resist. They seized upon the camera to represent themselves, using photographs to depict who they really were. Seemingly a “magical instrument” for “the displaced and marginalized,” as critic bell hooks writes, the camera provided “immediate intervention” to counter the injurious images used to deny them their rightful place in American society.
A Record of Everyday Black Americans
In 2013, a historian and collector named Frank Morrill, who lives in Charlton, a suburb of Worcester, Massachusetts, discovered over 230 portraits of people of color among the 5,300 glass negatives of photographer William Bullard that he owns.
I was drawn to these portraits because they illustrate the ways that ordinary, working-class families used the camera to represent themselves in their full humanity.
Bullard, a white neighbor of most of the people he photographed in Worcester, made these portraits from 1897 to 1917. Their images defy stereotypes of dysfunction by portraying the vitality of Black family life just a few decades after emancipation.
As Bullard was making his portraits, sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois was curating a photographic exhibition for the 1900 Paris Exposition. Du Bois sought to showcase Black achievement to the rest of the world, and his images featured middle-class and elite Black Americans, often in a studio setting and without specific identification.
Bullard’s portraits, on the other hand, are extraordinary because they capture common people on their porches, backyards and parlors. Moreover, most of the families can be identified, allowing their stories to be told.
Symbols of Resilience and Aspiration
The existence of these family units was an achievement in its own right.
At the time Bullard made his portraits, slavery and family separations remained a traumatic memory for many of his subjects. As a result, family portraits were especially significant. They testified to the achievements and aspirations of Black Americans and the resilience of their kinship networks.
And for a people whose history had so often been obliterated, the photographs provided an opportunity to preserve their stories for future generations.
In 1900, Rose, Edward and Abraham Perkins posed for Bullard in their Worcester backyard. Born into slavery in South Carolina, the three siblings and other family members had settled on former plantation land that Edward managed to purchase only a few years after emancipation.
But their dream of life as independent farmers ended with the demise of Reconstruction. A backlash of terror against the state’s Black population once again ushered in the rule of white supremacists.
Caught in the vice of declining cotton prices and an economic depression, Edward lost his land. With their hopes for new lives in the South demolished, Edward and his wife Celia made the decision to seek a more complete freedom in the North. They made their way to Worcester in 1879; soon Rose, Abraham and many other family members followed.
As refugees of terrorism and economic disaster, the siblings, in their portrait, embody triumph and perseverance, and commemorate the tenacity of family ties that stayed intact through slavery, emancipation and migration.
Conveying Respectability and Stability
Other photos portray flourishing young families claiming their place in American society. The subjects present themselves as ordinary, upstanding Americans who share the same values, tastes and aspirations as their contemporaries.
In 1904, Thomas, a Virginia native, and Margaret Dillon, born near Boston, posed with their three children in the parlor of their home. Legs crossed and hands in the pockets of a stylish suit, Thomas appears as a proud patriarch. Margaret, with a smile on her face and her luxuriant skirt cascading to the floor, radiates maternal love and decorum. She holds their baby as two older, well-dressed children stand between mother and father.
Flowered wallpaper, lace curtains and framed paintings signify a well-appointed home. A poster on the wall commemorates President Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to the city in 1902, suggesting the family’s engagement in politics and local affairs.
In this tableau of respectability and stability, the Dillons defy nearly every stereotype of the dysfunctional Black family. Although they labored for white families – Thomas as a coachman and Margaret as a domestic servant – and had yet to achieve middle-class security, their portrait brims with aspiration.
In the midst of this attack on Black manhood, some families centered their portraits on fathers and children. Around 1904, Raymond Schuyler, a railroad worker originally from upstate New York, had his portrait made with his four children in a snow-covered park. Playfully sitting on a child’s sled, with his arms encircling one of his young daughters, Schuyler personifies a benevolent, gentle masculinity.
In another image, a father poses with his baby on his lap, his large hands securely holding his child. He wears the uniform of the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization that espouses the values of responsibility, community and family.
The Quiet Resistance of the Family Photograph
As Black men battled claims of their inherent criminality, Black women fought a dualistic stereotype – that of the promiscuous “Jezebel” or servile “Mammy.” Black women fought these images by presenting themselves with respectability and decorum.
Take Jennie Bradley Johnson, who posed with her two stylishly dressed daughters, May and Jennie. Seated in a lush garden, surrounded by hydrangeas, Johnson conveys maternal warmth and modesty. Recently widowed and facing the burden of raising her family alone on a laundress’s wages, she nevertheless projects strength and endurance in the face of loss.
Historical portraits provide an invaluable means to enter the distant past. And other photographers have continued the tradition.
In 2017, photographer Zun Lee unveiled his exhibition “Fade Resistance,” made up of “orphaned” Polaroids from the 20th century that Lee discovered at yard sales and on eBay. The Black Americans in the photographs pose proudly with their cars, dress up for Easter and play with their kids.
Like Bullard’s portraits, Lee’s found family images are, as Lee wrote, a reminder that “there is a vivid history of Black visual self-representation that offers an eerily contemporary counter-narrative to mainstream distortion and erasure.”
Demonstrating the chasm between stereotype and reality, these Black family portraits reveal the ways in which ordinary hard-working Black families have long been rendered invisible in mainstream American culture. They reveal the common goals shared by all American families: the desire for stability and security, and the chance to nurture and support children so that they can have a better future.
About the author: Janette Greenwood is a Professor of History at Clark University. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. This article was originally published at The Conversation and is being republished under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license.
Image credits: Header photo is “Portrait of Betty and Willis Coles by William Bullard from about 1902.” Courtesy of Frank Morrill, Clark University and the Worcester Art Museum
A Massachusetts judge has dismissed a woman’s lawsuit claiming that she is the rightful owner of the images of an enslaved father and daughter and not Harvard, the New York Timesreports. The judge cites common law that the content of an image cannot be used to claim ownership of that image, regardless of the subject.
In 2019, Tamara Lanier sued Harvard for possession of daguerreotypes claiming that she was descended from those depicted in the images and that the school had profited from the exploitation of the images. The photos, which were taken in 1850, depicted the two enslaved individuals named Renty and Delia stripped to their waist. The photos were part of a project commissioned by Louis Agassiz, a prominent Harvard professor and zoologist, who used them as scientific evidence in a discredited theory that Black people were inferior.
The images remained hidden in the Harvard museum until 1976 and are considered to be the earliest known photographs of American slaves. You can read more about this story here as well as a discussion of the topic further here.
Justice Camille F. Sarrouf of the Middlesex County Superior Court wrote that despite the “horrific circumstances” that the photos were taken in, because the two depicted did not own the images when they were taken, their descendent Lanier did not own them either.
“Fully acknowledging the continuing impact slavery has had in the United States, the law, as it currently stands, does not confer a property interest to the subject of a photograph regardless of how objectionable the photograph’s origins may be,” she writes in her judgment. “It is a basic tenet of common law that the subject of a photograph has no interest in the negative or any photographs printed from the negative.”
When evaluating the details of the lawsuit, neither Harvard nor Judge Sarrouf disputed the evidence that Lanier was a descendent of Renty and Delia, but the judge did reject the claim that Harvard had exploited the photographs for financial gains by putting Renty’s image on the cover of a book. The judge stated that the right to control the commercial use of the photographs expired with the death of the subjects.
Lanier intends to appeal the decision.
“[The judge] completely missed the humanistic aspect of this, where we’re talking about the patriarch of a family, a subject of bedtime stories, whose legacy is still denied to these people,” she said in response to the ruling.
In that spirit, this article – using images from the David V. Tinder Collection of Michigan Photography at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan – examines different ways Black Americans from the 19th century used photography as a tool for self-empowerment and social change.
Black Studio Portraits
Speaking about how accessible photography had become during his time, Douglass once stated: “What was once the special and exclusive luxury of the rich and great is now the privilege of all. The humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase fifty years ago.”
To pose for a photograph became an empowering act for African Americans. It served as a way to counteract racist caricatures that distort facial features and mocked Black society. African Americans in urban and rural settings participated in photography to demonstrate dignity in the Black experience.
The first successful form of photography was the daguerreotype, an image printed on polished silver-plated copper. The invention of carte de visite photographs, followed by cabinet cards, changed the culture of photography because the process allowed photographers to print images on paper. Cartes de visite are portraits the size of a business card with several copies printed on a single sheet. The change from printing images on metal to printing on paper made them more affordable to produce, and anyone could commission a portrait.
Collecting Kinship: Arabella Chapman Albums
During Victorian times, it was fashionable for people to exchange cartes de visite with loved ones and collect them from visitors. Arabella Chapman, an African American music teacher from Albany, New York, assembled two cartes de visite photo albums. The first was a private album of family pictures, while the other featured friends and political figures for public viewing. The creation of each book allowed Chapman to store and share her photographs as intimate keepsakes.
Innovative Entrepreneurs: The Goodridge Brothers
When photography became a viable business, African Americans started their own photography studios in different locations across the country. The Goodridge Brothers established one of the earliest Black photography studios in 1847. The business, opened first in York, Pennsylvania, moved to Saginaw, Michigan in 1863.
The brothers – Glenalvin, Wallace and William – were known for producing studio portraits using a variety of photographic techniques. They also produced documentary photography printed on stereo cards to create 3D images.
Saginaw, Michigan, was an expanding settlement, and the brothers photographed new buildings in the town. They also documented natural disasters in the area. Photographers would capture 3D images of fires, floods and other destructive occurrences to record the impact of the event before the town rebuilt the area.
Documenting Communities: Harvey C. Jackson
The development of Black photography studios allowed communities greater control to style images that authentically reflected Black life. Harvey C. Jackson established Detroit’s first Black-owned photography studio in 1915. He collaborated with communities to create cinematic scenes of important events. In one photo, Jackson documents a mortgage-burning celebration at the Phyllis Wheatley Home, established in 1897. Its mission was to improve the status of Black women and the elderly by providing lodging and services.
Mortgage-burning ceremonies are a tradition churches observe to commemorate their last mortgage payment. Harvey Jackson documented this occasion with each person holding a string attached to the mortgage to connect each person in burning the document.
African Americans’ engagement with photography in the 19th century began a tradition for Black photographers’ use of photography today to promote social change. African Americans, whether they are in front or behind the camera, create empowering images that define the beauty and resilience contained within the Black experience.
About the author: Samantha Hill is 2019-2021 Joyce Bock Fellow at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan and current graduate student at U-M School of Information, University of Michigan. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. This article was originally published at The Conversation and is being republished under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license.
Image credits: Header photo is “Jubilee singers at Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, pose for promotional photograph”, circa 1871. William L. Clements Library
Photographer Mathieu Stern was browsing a flea market when he came across a Zenit Fotosnaiper, a Soviet-era camera rig that looks and feels more like a rifle. Stern jumped at the opportunity to have a copy of his own and to go hands-on with the camera.
The Zenit Fotosnaiper first appeared in the 1940s and was designed for military use as an observation camera. The rifle-style stock attachment helps the photographer be mobile yet stable at the same time.
As it was refined over the years, it was also redesigned for civilian use.
When Stern asked the seller at the flea market how much he was selling his pristine copy for, he was stunned to hear that the asking price was only €15 (~$18) for the kit, case, and accessories. It turns out the owner was too scared to take it out for use and was simply trying to get rid of it. Needless to say, Stern made the purchase without hesitation.
Inside the metal case was a Zenit ES SLR camera, a Helios 44M-4 58mm f/2 lens, a TAIR-3S 300mm f/4.5 lens, a shoulder rest/stock, a trigger assembly, a lens hood, caps, 6 filters, 2 screwdrivers, and a film canister.
“What’s the main problem with the PhotoSniper? You’re unlikely to go unnoticed by the people around you,” Stern says in the 7-minute video review above. “In the best-case scenario, they will ask you what you are doing. In the worst-case scenario, they will freak out and call the police because of the terrorist walking around with a rocket launcher.”
After carrying the Fotosnaiper around in its threatening form for a while, Stern decided to test the optics of just the TAIR-3S 300mm f/4.5 lens by adapting it to his Sony a7 III mirrorless camera using a M42 to Sony FE adapter.
Here are some sample images Stern captured with the lens:
“The 16 aperture blades give you great bokeh,” Stern says. “I must say I was blown away by the quality of the lens. It’s incredibly sharp […]”
Watch the video above to see sample footage shot with the lens. You can also find more of Stern’s reviews of weird and/or vintage lenses on his popular YouTube channel.
Curious how Kodak manufactures its film? In this 8-minute video, Studio C-41 shows the process from making the original giant rolls of plastic that eventually becomes film, to the finished product found on store shelves around the world.
Despite the demand for film falling significantly over the last couple of decades, Kodak continues to produce it in large amounts from its factory in Rochester, New York.
The manufacture of film can be broken down into three main steps. The first step involves heating, stretching, and forming the film base into a large rolled sheet. Those rolls can be up to 12,000 feet long. The next step is to sensitize the film rolls to light. Emulsions and chemicals are added to the film base to prepare it for final finishing.
The final step sends the sensitized film to the film finishing department, where it is cut to size, perforated, labeled, and prepared for shipping.
Despite what Kodak as a business has gone through over the past ten years and despite a shift to producing pharmaceuticals, the company still continues to press on with film production. While not particularly detailed in what it shows, the video does still provide an interesting look inside a company that was instrumental in the revolutionary spread of photography. Without Kodak and what it has been doing in that same factory for decades, many events may never have been captured for the future to look back on.
The spelling of “bokeh” to describe out-of-focus areas wasn’t used in relation to photography until as recently as 1997, so how has it come to dominate discussions about the qualities of a lens to the point that manufacturers have to mention it with every new release? This in-depth video explores the use of bokeh over the centuries from 16th-century oil paintings to today’s digital cameras.