Black Photo Exhibit Brings Humanity into Focus

Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture

by: Shantella Y. Sherman Special to the AFRO ssherman@afro.com
/ (Photo by Shantella Y. Sherman) /
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If a single picture is worth a thousand words, the decision by curators at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to make selections from its photo collection the first temporary exhibition, will likely become a pivotal one in its growth.

Photographers John Pinderhughes,Roy Lewis, Milton Williams, Supervisory Museum Curator of Collections, Michele Gates Moresi, photographer Sharon Farmer, and Curator, Photography and Visual Culture, Aaron Bryant celebrate the opening of the new changing exhibit More than a Picture. (Photo by Shantella Y. Sherman)

“More Than a Picture: Selections from the Photography Collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture” opened on May 5, featuring more than 150 photographs highlighting the hidden depths of Black culture.

Photos featured in the exhibit are by both notable and amateur photographers and include thematic images, portraits of recognizable Black figures, such as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois and Rosa Parks, and depictions of average Black Americans in everyday situations, such as buying groceries.

According to NMAAHC Founding Director, Lonnie Bunch, the changing exhibition program makes more of the museum’s collection accessible to the public.

“We want people to understand the complexities and nuances of the people in these photographs,” Bunch told reporters at the exhibit preview, May 2.  “When I wander through this exhibition, I am captured by scope of history that is displayed and how these images convey so much of the hopes and the heartaches that have shaped America.”

Perhaps most telling within the exhibit are photos of children, whose personhood, historically has been conscripted or firmly attached to that of their parents.  From the works of celebrated photographers like Joe Schwartz, Leonard Freed and Jamel Shabazz, Black children gain both autonomy, humanity, and the often-overlooked frailty associated with childhood, according to Bunch.

Supervisory Museum Curator of Collections, Michele Gates Moresi said that through the development of a book series in conjunction with the exhibit photos Black children fell into the historical, cultural and community aspects of the series, leading to a book dedicated to images of Black children.

“We wanted to make sure they were not just cute pictures, but a book in which we could talk about how we have engaged with children over the years and how it is still very meaningful,” Moresi told the AFRO.  “Another thing that comes through with the exhibit is the level of engagement of children in activism.”

Moresi points to one example of by Ernest C. Withers, called “First Day of Memphis Integration,” showing smiling and excited children peering from the backseat window of a car in 1961.

“It just looks like average kids on their way to their first day of school, but the reality was that for the first several weeks of that year, those kids had to be escorted by armed police to school,” Moresi said.  “When you think about the context of the photo – they are not just cute kids, you want to know what happened to them.  What they experienced, and what their parents had to do to get them prepared to integrate a school.”

In many respects, the power of the children’s photos, when coupled with those of elders – like Sharon Farmer’s iconic photo of 97-year-old Beatrice Fergerson showing off her hula hooping skills – champion those behind the lens with breaking through the masks lamented in works by poets such as Maya Angelou and Paul Lawrence Dunbar.

Farmer, who served as the first Black female White House staff photographer under Bill Clinton, was joined by other legendary photographers, Roy Lewis, John Pinderhughes, and Milton Williams.

Lewis, who worked for years at Chicago’s Johnson’s Publishing capturing the tumultuous and tremendous within the Civil Rights Movement, said he was once told by a Brazilian sociologist that taking photos immortalizes a spirit, causing some to shy away from being photographed.  But more often, Lewis said, the lens exposes hidden stories.

“There are times when you can take a photo of a person, where they do not recognize themselves.  For instance, you can take picture of a young girl, but she appears – in subtle ways – as a woman.  You can see the woman she will be in the image,” Lewis told the AFRO.  “More than a Picture is the perfect name for the exhibition because there are often many more things about a person revealed in images than they will ever say of themselves.”

In addition to telling untold stories, the exhibit, according to Rex M. Ellis, associate director for Curatorial Affairs, promises to depict love, despair, joy, and conflict across generations, in the process, more fully documenting variations within Black culture.

“We are trying to show the diversity of African-American life and we are trying to show the promise of those lives, and the passion that those lives are.  It is so important that visitors see multidimensional people who don’t all think just one thought, but think a variety of things over various stages in their lives – especially youngsters,” Ellis told the AFRO.

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