Exhibit looks at history of black photography

Posted: Thursday, December 12, 2002

ATLANTA -- In the early days of the Civil Rights movement, photojournalist Moneta Sleet Jr. took hundreds of pictures while covering a then-unknown minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., for Ebony magazine.

But it was a black and white photograph of Coretta Scott King, head held high at her husband's funeral, and her 5-year-old daughter looking directly into the camera, that won Sleet the Pulitzer Prize in 1968 and made him the first black journalist to earn the award in feature photography.

The portrait is part of a comprehensive traveling exhibition, ''Reflections in Black: Smithsonian African-American Photogra-phy,'' on view at the Atlanta History Center.

Few know that Sleet was the only photographer given that kind of access to King, says Daniel Hoover, exhibitions manager at the center, where the exhibit has been on display for two months; attendance has reached nearly 12,500.

Divided into three sections, the show features more than 300 images by 120 black photographers, from the early 19th century to present.

Photographs were donated by historical societies, libraries or other institutions and private collections. The exhibit showcases works like James VanDerZee's Harlem of the 1930s, A.P. Bedou's gelatin silver prints of Booker T. Washington on his last Southern tour, and Jules Lion, who in 1840 introduced daguerreotypes in New Orleans just one year after the process of producing images on iodized copper was invented.

''Their photographs visually realized the dreams and desires of their individual communities, which included a spirit of transformation,'' curator and historian Deborah Willis explains on the exhibit's Web site. Her research also led to a companion book, ''Reflections in Black.''

Visitors initially walk through a historical timeline, ''The First 100 Years: 1842-1942,'' with rare gelatin silver prints, tintypes and ambrotypes by pioneers in the medium such as Augustus Washington, James Presley (J.P.) Ball and Daniel Freeman.

Slavery thrived in 1840, so innovators tried to counter the existing, offensive caricatures. Hoover, who assembled the display in Atlanta, said he understood the need to challenge the status quo.

''Daniel Freeman was working and living in Washington, D.C., and he documented life in African-American communities,'' Hoover said, pointing to early 19th- and 20th-century images of newlywed couples, businessmen and family portraits. ''This range really exemplifies some of the things we don't necessarily associate with African-Americans in this time. They were living, they were working, they were in their communities.''

Having the complete exhibition in Georgia has been especially meaningful, says Gordon L. Jones, Atlanta History Center director of exhibitions and collections.

''Atlanta was developing a middle-class, an upper-middle class, an upper class African-American community before a lot of other cities were in the South,'' Jones said.

When it opened in 2000, the estimated value of the exhibition was $581,085, officials said. However, its importance surpasses monetary value, says Habeebah Muhammad of the Anacostia Museum and Center.

''The significance is obvious because of the extensive research (done by Willis) in black photography and the magnitude and extension of the timeline,'' she said.

Black Panther rally scenes and civil rights marches are captured by photojournalists such as Gordon Parks and Robert L. Haggins in the ''Art and Activism'' section -- the exhibition's second component.

This section shifts from the posed and sometimes static scenes of the introductory portion. New lighting techniques and equipment gave photographers more freedom to use narrative and metaphor in their composition.

''Art and Activism'' includes Parks' series of a poor cleaning woman in Washington, D.C., and Haggins photo of a young Muhammad Ali flanked by fans -- Malcolm X laughs in the background.

There are also portraits of King, writer and activist Alice Walker and Atlanta Daily World newspaper publisher and founder, C. A. Scott, looking over pages in his office. An unexpected moment: Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie seen feeding birds near a fountain.

A few steps away are life-sized color photographs of children jumping double-Dutch and a pigtailed girl holding a Barbie doll next to her face. Around another corner of the section are scenes of jazz musicians and poets, churchgoers and laborers, poverty and prosperity.

''Not only is it about activism in the communities, but how people are acting,'' Hoover said.

The final thematic section, ''A History Deconstructed,'' features mixed media works by contemporary artists who incorporate digital technology and text to redefine themselves and society.

''Photography always runs the line of being a document and also being art,'' Hoover said. ''This exhibit, in all three parts, really exposes how photography can exist in a parallel ... as a document of something but also a personal expression of ideas.''

The Atlanta History Center is the fourth host to show the exhibit in its entirety, but the first in the South.

The full exhibit will move to the Frist Center for Visual Arts in Nashville, Tenn., beginning Jan. 16. The African-American Museum in Philadelphia was recently added to feature the full exhibit in 2004. The show already has run in Detroit, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., where it originated at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture.


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