Portrait of grandmother with her granddaughter
1910s, Silver gelatin print

This site lets you read studio photographs of African Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as history. Contrasting these personal photographic images with public ones, like commercial or documentary photos, reveals the gap between how African Americans wanted to see themselves and how they were most commonly seen by others.

Photography provided people with an unprecedented opportunity for self-representation. Prior to the advent of photography, portraiture was limited to the wealthy. But photography's falling prices democratized visual representation. By 1900 virtually anyone could afford to commission their own likeness. The status of paying customer gave the sitter control over how he or she was represented.

Studio portraits are not simply documentations of identity; they are careful constructions of identity. Choices in backdrops, clothing, and poses are not accidental. Rather, they reveal how the sitter wished to be seen. Alan Trachtenberg writes that daguerreotypes (the earliest type of photograph) "show people learning a new way of seeing themselves in the eyes of others, seeing oneself as an image"2 At the time of the daguerreotype's introduction to the United States, the country was nearing Civil War and most African Americans were enslaved. With a few notable exceptions, blacks had no control over how they were represented. The studio portraits in this web site represent among the first opportunities of African Americans to create their own image. Almost without exception that image was one of bourgeois stability, at a time when only 1.2 per cent of blacks belonged to the professional class.3 These middle class values are embodied in the figure of the "New Negro."

Yet photography, its inexpensive lithographic reproduction and related visual technologies enabled the vast proliferation of commercial images, an extraordinary number of which caricatured African Americans. The number and negative nature of these images make the middle class identity constructed in studio portraits of African Americans especially striking, though certainly not unique.

This site examines studio photographs of black Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The first section, "Representing the New Negro" explains the qualities of "New Negro" men and women and the historical pressures that shaped them. The sections are made up of various photographs of African Americans, both studio portraits as well as commercial and documentary ones. This allows the viewer of this site to compare the images blacks commissioned and constructed of themselves with those publicly circulating. Viewing these portraits is a way of reading turn-of-the-century African American history pictured by the people who lived it.

Sources and Resources
The Incorporation of American American Studies at UVa