Much of what survives from Hugh Mangum’s photography was salvaged from a barn on his family’s farm in Durham, North Carolina. His glass plate negatives, left untouched following his death in 1922, decayed and were covered with dust and waste when the space was turned into a henhouse. Many disappeared over the years. In 1968, the barn was set to be demolished after the sale of the land for a commercial development. Then local environmentalists rallied for the site’s protection, and it was donated to the city of Durham. The negatives were rediscovered in the old barn, and donated to Duke University in 1986.
The Hugh Mangum Photographs Collection in Duke’s Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library has 937 glass plate negatives and black-and-white photographs created between the 1890s and 1922. They are remarkable for their racially and economically diverse representation of the South at the turn of the century. Mangum was an itinerant portrait photographer, traveling throughout North Carolina and Virginia. Despite this being a period of Jim Crow segregation, his mobile studio was open to all. His subjects are dressed in their best clothes, or in shirts patched into calico patterns; posed solemnly, or with whimsical props; alone or in a crowd of family and friends. Because Mangum frequently used a Penny Picture Camera, which offered affordable portraits by packing several on a single negative (the smallest the size of a penny), these glass plates present a whole sequence of sitters from that day.
“Through Mangum’s eyes, we see a diverse citizenry, and we see them depicted with democratic equanimity on the same glass plate negative in side-by-side portraits, which suggests that they waited their turn together, in the same studio at the same time,” Margaret Sartor, an instructor at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, told Hyperallergic.
With Alex Harris, who is also part of the Center for Documentary Studies faculty, Sartor co-curated Where We Find Ourselves: The Photographs of Hugh Mangum, 1897–1922 now at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham. An accompanying catalogue, out February 4 from the University of North Carolina Press, features recent high-resolution color scans of the glass plates which vividly capture their deterioration. The exhibition and book additionally reflect the newest discoveries of Mangum’s fragmented body of work.
“During the years that Alex Harris and I worked on this exhibition and book, we were contacted when several hundred more glass plate negatives turned up in local attics and basements,” Sartor said. “Those have been donated and added to the Hugh Mangum collection at Duke.”
Hundreds of his photographs are available to explore online in the Duke University Libraries Digital Repository. There are only spare details about Mangum’s life, some gleaned from the travel log he kept, which Sartor and Harris chronicle in the monograph. Born in 1877 in Durham, his early interest in art led to his taking classes at a local women’s college. There are records of his later studies in hypnotism. He seems to have had an enduring curiosity about people, and was comfortable in settings where he was an outsider. Although his family was involved in numerous local businesses, he decided to set out on his own with his camera equipment, riding the rails from Durham to erect a temporary studio in small towns, sometimes visiting up to ten a year. While there were then permanent photography studios in many Southern towns, they would have been increasingly segregated.
Mangum appears regularly in his photographs, often filling the first or last place on a Penny negative, coyly posing with his hat over his face or gazing at himself in a mirror. The engagement of his sitters with the camera suggests he was a gregarious person who put people at ease and had a playful streak, such as posing a dog like a person in a succession of family portraits. Yet no matter who he was photographing, there is a self-possession and dignity in their portraits.
“The great variety of portraits that Mangum made show us a time and place that we think we are familiar with and have many assumptions about, ideas we carry with us about race, class, and family relationships, ideas based in fact but also, to a degree, in fiction,” Sartor stated. “In the multiple-image glass plate negatives that have survived, we see black people and white people, people of mixed race and people from a wide range of economic circumstances, all portrayed as distinct and complex individuals. We see African Americans — young, old, rich, and poor — who communicate strength, poise, and self-determination.”
Mangum died suddenly at the age of 44 during an influenza epidemic. Many of his portraits are as lively as if they were taken yesterday, with people caught in candid laughter or with freshly cut flowers pinned on their suits and dresses. Other faces are almost lost to the crackle of decay on the glass plate negatives. Together they are a compelling collective portrait of this region of the South at the beginning of the 20th century, taken by a person who gave all of his subjects a place to express themselves.
“These plates seem to embody the very texture of life, pointing directly to the ways in which experience is impacted by passing history,” Sartor said. “In the scratches, cracks, fingerprints, and delicate color shifts that surround and sometimes cover the sitters’ faces, we are looking at portraits of individuals through the unmistakable portal of time.”
Where We Find Ourselves: The Photographs of Hugh Mangum, 1897 – 1922 continues through May 19, 2019 at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University (2001 Campus Drive, Durham, North Carolina). The accompanying catalogue is out February 4 from the University of North Carolina Press.