Art

Curators Experiment with Scale, Bringing New Life to the Jim Crow-era Photography of Hugh Mangum

A concise show of photographs printed for impact, at an enlarged scale and in color, magnifies questions about race in the United States.

Hugh Magnum (c.1897-1922), (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

DURHAM, North Carolina — After nearly a century unseen, the photographic portraiture of white itinerant photographer Hugh Mangum is on view. But, like the cheeky self portrait of the artist at the exhibit’s entrance — a partial gaze of a bespectacled Mangum peeking out of a turn-of-the-century cameo from behind the brim of his hat — the show offers a swift snapshot. Where We Find Ourselves: The Photographs of Hugh Mangum, 1897-1922 displays a small sampling of the nearly 1,000 photos in Mangum’s extant archive.

The two-room gallery installation at the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, North Carolina, offers a succinct, alternate history of racial segregation in the South during the Jim Crow-era. Traveling through Virginia, and his home state of North Carolina, at the height of the post-Reconstruction era, Mangum announced his tenure in cities and towns with broadsides that advertised: “All Kinds of Pictures.” This rhetorical wink anticipates Magnum’s subjects — sitters both black and white  — who discarded the pretenses of white supremacist partition at the studio’s threshold.

Hugh Magnum (c.1897-1922), (courtesy Nasher Museum of Art)

Part of the novelty of Magnum’s negatives is their indexicality. A devotee of the Penny Press camera, Magnum preserved multiple exposures on a single glass plate through a shuttling step-and-repeat process. These grid-like images show a serial record of men, women, and children varying in age, circumstance, and skin tone who share not only photographic borders and standard sitting poses. To create these images, they would have passed through the studio at the same time. A handful of these plates have been reproduced wholesale for the exhibit: a black-presenting toddler in a white dress, hair parted neatly down the middle; a white-presenting toddler cross-eyed and looking a bit dumbstruck as she clutches her hands; a black-presenting woman in a high collared dress looking austerely to the right of the frame; a black-presenting girl with heat curls looking straight on; a white-presenting woman, thin-lipped with hair pulled tightly back in a bun, gazing resolutely to the right; and so on. Almost none of Mangum’s photographic subjects have been identified, in large part due to the quick, cheap, and highly mobile nature of his enterprise.

Hugh Magnum (c.1897-1922), (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Several of the show’s featured photographs are plates consisting of two separate images exposed in the same frame, the only indication of distinct sittings is a vertical light variation that undermines Mangum’s nearly seamless suturing. In one such picture, two white-presenting girls, perhaps sisters, with big dark-colored bows atop their heads, share a rectangular plate with a black-presenting girl who has a white bow clipped at her crown. Their soft smiles, synchronicity of feminine adornment, and youth offer a sweet stereoscope of girlhood. Another, the portrait of a clear-eyed, black-presenting boy in a suit and a mustachioed white-presenting man, is a menacing image because of all the power differentials and manifest vulnerabilities that can be read into the vertical valley of light separating them.

Many of Mangum’s photos — both stand-alone portraits and latticed negatives — bear multiple exposures, one over top another. Some of these seem intentional, a variation on the doppelgänger and spirit photographs popular in the earlier part of the nineteenth century. A sober-looking white-presenting man in a hat, for example, is interceded upon by two spectral white presenting young men, arms around each others’ shoulders, cigarettes hanging, like James Dean would have done it, from the sides of their mouths. In another, a black-presenting woman in a seated parlor pose appears to be emerging from the head of a white woman; the bulky book held in the first woman’s lap visible beneath the lace collar of the second. In other photos where three and four images wash over each other in the same frame, the overlap is more likely an economical efficiency necessitated by work on the road. Whatever Mangum’s impulse, the effect is a visual record of the deeply entangled interracial social life of the Jim Crow South — whimsical and haunting.

Hugh Magnum (c.1897-1922), (courtesy Nasher Museum of Art)

The traumas of these images are not only the fraught history of the subjects who people them, however. The photographs featured in the exhibit have their own history of abandonment and salvage. Mangum’s archive is full of intrigue. After his sudden death in 1922, the plates languished for decades, neglectfully stored in a family tobacco barn. Their just-in-the-nick-of-time discovery has produced pictures marred by time, deterioration, and damage. A deft curatorial decision made by photographers and co-curators Margaret Sartor and Alex Harris was a not-too-strict adherence to historical production. In addition to enlarging the digital scans of dry glass plate negatives to sizes that would have been unimaginable during Mangum’s lifetime, they also elected to print the photographs in color. Cracks in the emulsion can be seen in high violet, ill-advised cleaning overtures are visible in swipes of ochre, and the droplets of moisture damage are ringed in cornflower blue. In some places these erosions are negligible — a distraction at the corner of the frame. In other instances, the distortion is wholesale — scars that indelibly intervene upon our vision. This emphasis on the materiality of the photographs underscores their intimate ephemerality.

Hugh Magnum (c.1897-1922), (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Mangum’s photos are prescient. His body of work — shots from his roving portrait studios and portraits made in more pastoral scenes — have garnered comparisons to contemporary artists like Sally Mann, Carrie Mae Weems, and Emmet Gowin. Children barefoot, outdoors, and distracted, are a captivating mainstay of the exhibition. The archetype of the New Woman that took hold at the precipice of the twentieth century is another clear influence: as ladies stand astride bikes, hold each other in intimate embraces, or playfully pop out of pre-cut newspaper pages.

Was Mangum ahead of his time or simply a product of it? Where We Find Ourselves offers partial answers and incomplete pictures. The show’s power is in its deficiency. In its deliberate imperfections, fragmentary views, and willful obstructions, the show offers a powerful meditation on all that is seen and unseen in Mangum’s frames.

Where We Find Ourselves: The Photographs of Hugh Mangum, 1897 – 1922 curated by Margaret Sartor and Alex Harris continues through May 19, 2019 at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University (2001 Campus Drive, Durham, North Carolina). 

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