From photography’s beginnings in the United States, professionally produced studio portraits have provided an essential means of self-representation for Black Americans. Commercial studios across the country offered space for Black photographers to create portraits for their sitters — and of the beauty they saw in their own communities.

Work by more than three dozen such photographers is collected in Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers, now on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA). The exhibition celebrates famous portrait photographers such as James Presley Ball, James Van Der Zee, and Addison Scurlock, alongside other image-makers, including Arthur P. Bedou, Florestine Perrault Collins, Morgan and Marvin Smith, Austin Hansen, and more.

Called to the Camera is the first exhibition to focus exclusively on this national cohort of artists and entrepreneurs, situating that group within a broader inclusive history of picture-making. Black studio photographers produced commissioned works for paying clients, while also engaging with and responding to the important artistic styles of the day — from pictorialism to modernism.

Also included are photographs made outside the physical walls of the studio, spanning genres like documentary, fashion, and photojournalism. All of these photographs together show how these images informed Black culture, American history, and photography as we understand it today. To that end, Called to the Camera includes work by a number of contemporary photographers who create work in response to this rich lineage. Those artists include Alanna Airitam, Endia Beal, Elliott Jerome Brown Jr., Jeanne Moutoussammy-Ashe, Tiffany Smith, Selwhyn Sthaddeus “Polo Silk” Terrell, Aaron Turner, and Eric Waters.

The exhibition reframes the history of American photography by placing Black photographers and subjects at the center of that story, arguing for a reconsideration of how historians and institutions evaluate and display photography.

Called to the Camera is on view at NOMA through January 8, 2023.

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