All Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C., including the National Zoo, and in New York City continue to be closed to support the effort to contain the spread of COVID-19.
“More Than a Picture”
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What is the scope of the exhibition? How many photographs and photographers are featured?
The exhibition showcases 169 photographs representing the work of 80 photographers from the late 1800s to the present. Also on display are 18 objects to help put the photographs in context. For instance, a photograph by Jermaine Gibbs depicts a group of people inking arms in Baltimore after the killing of Freddie Gray. One man is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with an artist’s rendering of the American flag. The exhibition also includes the Patrick Campbell painting (“New Age of Slavery,” 2014) that was used as the graphic on the T-shirt.
What are the oldest photos in the collection, and why were they included?
Among the older images is a photograph of two enslaved women and a group of children. It was taken in 1861 or 1862 on a plantation owned by Felix Richards, just west of Alexandria, Va. The museum knows the names of all nine people in the photograph—sisters-in-law Lucinda and Frances Hughes and seven children. This image was included because it is rare to have such precise information about the enslaved shown in photographs. The exhibition also includes a hand-sized card, dated 1864, with an image of abolitionist Sojourner Truth. The card includes the words, “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance.” The card is included to show how photographs were used in day-to-day life during this period. Sojourner Truth sold copies of this photograph to support herself and allow her to travel the country and speak out against slavery.
What are the most recent photos, and why were they included?
Among the most recent photographs are two prints from Sheila Pree Bright’s series “1960Now Portfolio A.” Images in this series were taken during Black Lives Matter rallies in Atlanta; Baltimore; Ferguson, Mo.; and Washington, D.C. They were included to show the evolution and continuity of civil rights protest and how important it is for museums to collect materials on current topics. The museum is committed to exploring issues of yesterday and today and to make sure present-day events and issues have historical context.
This exhibition showcases some of the highlights of your photography collection. How extensive is that collection?
The museum’s photography collection includes more than 25,000 images. They are as varied as studio portraits, art photography and family portraits as well as prints by notable photojournalists. The collection includes works by both world-renowned photographers and lesser-known image makers who documented the contributions, struggles, triumphs and everyday lives of African Americans.
Visitors can see photographs in the museum’s Center for African American Media Arts (CAAMA). What is CAAMA?
The Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts (CAAMA) showcases the museum’s dynamic image collection through a series of changing exhibitions featuring both still and moving images. It also offers publications and public programs. Located on the second floor of the museum, this resource center is committed to exploring the role, meaning and impact of images by and about African Americans and other people of African descent.
How are you using photography to explore African American history and culture?
The museum uses various collections to cover a wide swath of the American experience, and the photograph is among the richest visual media to do this. With such images the museum depicts events, brings human scale to them and explores cultural diversity. Museum programs are designed to help visitors understand historic moments on a broad scale as well as through the lens of a personal family event. The photography collection also ensures a rich representation of African American photographers.
What can we learn about the power of photography from the five books of photography the museum has published?
In his foreword to the first book in the Double Exposure series, the museum’s founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, said the unique power of the image is “to move us, and put faces and personality to historic moments.” That also is the goal of the museum’s exhibitions—to build and make accessible a rich collection of photographs reflecting the diversity of the African American experience.
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