The New Orleans Museum of Art has announced the fall opening of “Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers,” a major exhibition focusing on the artistic virtuosity, social significance, and political impact of black American photographers working in commercial portrait studios during the first century of photography. and beyond.
The exhibition focuses on a nationwide cohort of professional cameramen, demonstrating the variety of their work and their influence on the broader history of photography. Two New Orleans photographers who captured Creole life in the city in the early and mid-twentieth century are featured.
“One of NOMA’s primary goals is to support meaningful projects that amplify the history of underrepresented communities,” said Susan Taylor, director of Montine McDaniel Freeman of the New Orleans Museum of Art. “‘Called to the Camera’ does just that: it articulates both a local and national story, centering the importance of black photographers in their communities and in the history of photography.”
Featuring more than 150 photographs ranging from the 19th century to the present day, many of which have never been publicly exhibited and are one-of-a-kind items, “Called to the Camera” will be on display at NOMA from September 16 through January 8.
The exhibition will feature works from across the country, demonstrating how the black photography studio was a national phenomenon. The exhibition includes an interspersed selection of works by modern and contemporary artists, illustrating the connections between the historical legacy of black photography studios and what we now think of as fine art photography.
The two New Orleans photographers in the exhibit, Florestine Perrault Collins and Arthur P. Bedou, offer a look at the city’s Creole community in the first half of the 1900s. Their photos of lavish weddings and dignified celebrants provide a contrast convincing with racist media images of black life in America at this time.
In their New Orleans studios, the two photographers have created hundreds of cherished portraits of Creole babies. As former mayor Sidney Barthelemy’s mother said in an article on Louisiana history: Like most Creole mothers of her time, when she left home with a new baby, she made two stops: “the church for the baptism and the photographer”.
Florestine Perrault Collins
Florestine Perrault Collins was born in 1895 into a family that had prospered as free people of color before the Civil War. However, their fortunes declined after the arrival of Jim Crow. As the eldest of six children, she was taken out of school at a young age to help support the family.
As a teenager, she became interested in photography and became a photo assistant to learn the craft. The studios at the time were owned by white photographers, and she had to lie about her racial identity and pose as white to get work. This allowed her to hone her skills while helping support her family.
In 1920, she was one of 101 African-American professional female photographers in that year’s U.S. census—and the only one in New Orleans. At that time, she proudly presented herself to the city’s Creole community as a black photographer specializing in domestic portraits. His advertisements promoted the idea of incorporating photography into life stages such as weddings, first communions and graduations.
She went into business for herself and opened a studio in her home after her first marriage in 1917. Showing expertise in both marketing and photography, she was successful enough to open a studio in North Claiborne Avenue, then the city’s most prestigious black business district. , five years later.
She was known for bringing out the best in her subjects, capturing images to display proudly on mantelpieces and in family albums.
In “Through a Lens Darkly”, a film about the photographic portrait of black life in the United States, historian Arthé Anthony, who is Collins’ great-niece, evokes the legacy of Florestine Perrault Collins. Anthony also wrote a book about his great-aunt, “Picture Black New Orleans”.
“His work is important because it helps tell the story of the New Orleans Creole community over the nearly 30 years it has been in business,” Anthony said in the filmed interview. “The community was imagined as exceptional, even exotic – and in some ways it was indeed unique in the Deep South due to its history as free people of color, Catholicism and professional and residential role models in the city. .
“However, race was always present in the shaping of their lives, as evidenced by the degrading images of black Americans from this era. Florestine, like all other black portrait painters of this period, worked with her clients to construct images that reflected pride, sophistication and dignity.
Arthur Paul Bedou
Collins’ work was limited to his studio and the homes of his clients. As a woman, she had too many obstacles to photograph, for example, public events. His contemporary Arthur P. Bedou left behind him a larger body of work.
Bedou became a nationally acclaimed photographer, expanding his career and portfolio beyond wedding and baby portraits to include high profile work such as documenting the last decade of Booker T. Washington’s life.
The son of a railroad porter, Bedou grew up on Bayou Road and North Derbigny Street in Treme. He briefly worked as a clerk for the Leon Godchaux Co. on Canal Street, but was a professional photographer at the age of 20 around 1900 (his year of birth varies depending on the source). His career spanned nearly seven decades.
As a portrait photographer, according to a 2013 article on the CreoleGen website, he was a perfectionist, known for insisting his subjects stand for an hour until a cloud moved and every face could be seen.
In addition to his domestic portraits, he regularly worked for Xavier University and for the Sisters of the Holy Family and their missions, such as St. Mary’s Academy and the Lafron Catholic Nursing Home.
Bedou is perhaps best known for his widely reproduced portraits of educator, orator, and author Booker T. Washington. He was Washington’s personal photographer during his tenure as president of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Through his ties to Washington, Bedou has been called upon to document events at Tuskegee, Fisk University, and other historically black colleges and universities across the country. He was also the official photographer of the National League of Black Affairsthe National Medical Association and the National Baptist Convention.
In New Orleans, he became a favorite of black and white high society; her debutante portrayals have appeared in The Times-Picayune as well as The Louisiana Weekly. An avid dancer, he also photographed local jazz bands. A devout Catholic, he captured major religious events such as the laying of the foundation stone for the Corpus Christi Church in the 7th arrondissement. He photographs landscapes and local news items, such as the deportation of Marcus Garvey.
While achieving significant success with his commercial work, Bedou also aspired to be seen as an art photographer. He appears to have achieved this goal as well, receiving the Gold Medal for Photography at the Jamestown Tercentenary Exhibition in 1907. His photo of a 1918 partial eclipse, taken at City Park, was featured prominently in The Times-Picayune. In late 1944, Dillard University hosted the first public exhibition of Bedou’s work.
Bedou prospered and invested in real estate and in companies such as the People’s Industrial Life Insurance Co. of Louisiana, where he served for many years as a director and vice president. When he died in 1966, he left much of his fortune to St. Mary’s Academy, Xavier Preparatory, and Xavier University.
“Called on Camera”
Bedou and Collins are among the exhibit’s photographers who have been regionally active. The others are Reverend Henry Clay Anderson (Greenville, Mississippi), Morgan and Marvin Smith (New York), and Robert and Henry Hooks (Memphis).
Photographers whose works are featured in “Called to the Camera” also include James Van Der Zee and Addison Scurlock, who have worked on a national stage. Among the contemporary photographers included in the exhibition are Endia Beal, Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. and Polo Silk.
The exhibit will showcase a range of different types of imagery – photojournalism, panoramic photographs, early daguerreotypes of prominent Black Americans (like Frederick Douglass). To get closer to how these photographers worked, the exhibition will include photographic equipment, studio ephemera and an immersive recreation of the reception room of a well-known studio.
The exhibit is organized into five sections over 6,000 square feet that run chronologically and thematically from the 1840s to the present day. The first section emphasizes the central role that black American photographers played in 19th century photography, focusing on the establishment of commercial studio practices in the United States by photographers like James Presley Ball and the Goodridge Brothers.
The second gallery evokes the commercial studios and domestic interiors of the early 20th century, providing a contextual setting that illustrates how black Americans used photography after 1900 to shape both private life and public expressions of self.
From there, the exhibition focuses on the practices of half a dozen photographic studios, providing insight into similarities and differences between geographies and exploring how these artists used a range of photographic processes and aesthetic styles. until the late 1960s.
Brian Piper, curator and assistant curator of photographs at the New Orleans Museum of Art, notes in a press release: “By bringing these objects – many of which have never been displayed before – into the art museum, we can help reframe the history of American photography and the place Black photographers and models at the center of that history. “Called to the Camera” is, in part, an argument for re-examining how historians and institutions assess and present photography. »