Black people used photography to create social change

This article, using images from the David V. Tinder collection of Michigan Photography in the William L. Clements Library of the University of Michigan, examines the different ways Black Americans of the 19th century utilized photography as a means of self-empowerment.

Black studio portraits

Cabinet cards of African Americans, from the David V. Tinder collection of Michigan photography. Right: Woman in silk dress, circa 1888. Right: Woman in Silk Dress, circa 1888. William L. Clements Library

Douglass once stated that photography was now accessible to all. “What used to be the exclusive privilege of the wealthy and powerful is now available for everyone.” Even the humblest of servant girls can now own a photograph of themselves that would have cost kings fifty years ago.

Posing for a photo became a empowering act for African Americans. The act was a counter to racist caricatures which distorted facial features and mocked Black culture. African Americans from urban and rural areas participated in photography in order to show the dignity of Black culture.

The first successful form was the daguerreotype. This image was printed on polished, silver-plated copper. cartes de visite and cabinets cards changed the world of photography by allowing photographers to print their images on paper. Cartes de visites are portraits that are the size of business cards, with multiple copies on a single sheet. The change from printing images on metal to printing on paper made them more affordable, and anyone can commission a portrait.

Collecting kinship: Arabella Chapman albums

Arabella Chapman poses in a portrait taken from her public album of cartes de visite, circa 1878-1880s. William L. Clements Library

In Victorian times it was popular for people to collect and exchange cartes de visit from their visitors.

Arabellachapman is an African American music instructor from Albany, New York. She assembled two photo albums. The first album was private and featured family photos, while the second included pictures of friends and politicians for public viewing. Chapman was able to share and store her photos as personal keepsakes by creating each book.

The Goodridge Brothers : Innovative entrepreneurs

Children look at the burned remains of the Washington Street Fire, circa 1870s. David V. Tinder collection of Michigan photography. William L. Clements Library

African Americans opened their own studios when photography became a profitable business. They did this in various locations throughout the United States. In 1847, the Goodridge Brothers opened one of the first Black photography studios. The first studio was located in York, Pennsylvania. In 1863, the business moved to Saginaw in Michigan.

Glenalvin Wallace and William were well-known for their studio portraits, which they produced using photography. The brothers also created 3D images using stereo cards.

Saginaw was a growing settlement and the brothers took photos of new buildings. The brothers also documented the natural disasters that occurred in the region. Photographers captured 3D images of floods, fires and other destructive events to document the impact of an event before the town rebuilt.

Documenting communities: Harvey C. Jackson

Burning of the mortgage on the Phyllis Wheatley home in Detroit, Michigan. By Harvey C. Jackson. David V. Tinder collection of Michigan photography. William L. Clements Library

Black photography studios gave communities more control over the style of images they wanted to portray. Harvey C. Jackson founded Detroit’s first Black photography studio in the year 1915. Jackson worked with local communities to create cinematic images of significant events. Jackson captured a celebration of the Phyllis Wheatley home‘s founding in 1897. The mission of the Phyllis Wheatley Home was to provide lodging and services for Black women and elderly people.

Mortgage Burning Ceremonies is a church tradition to celebrate their last mortgage payment. Harvey Jackson captured this event with each person holding the mortgage and a string to link them together.

In the 19th century, African Americans began to engage with photography. This tradition continues today as Black Photographers use photography for social change. African Americans create powerful images, whether in front of or behind the lens, that capture the beauty and resilience found within the Black experience.

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