Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton
Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton, Mobile, Alabama, 1956, by Gordon Parks Credit: Archival pigment print Gift of the Gordon Parks Foundation in Honor of Arthur Roger, 2017.181 © The Gordon Parks Foundation

The invention and advancement of photography in the late 19th and early 20th centuries made it easier for everyone to get portraits done. This new accessibility, however, was especially important for people of color.

Painted portraits were expensive and time-consuming, a luxury only wealthy people could afford. As photography became more the standard, many Black people who had only dreamed of having their portraits done found themselves as both the subjects and the creators. Free from the white gaze, Black studio photographers were able to provide a sense of dignity, glamour and creativity in the sanctuary of their studios that was not possible in much of American society.

“Called to the Camera” is on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art until Jan. 8th, 2023. Admission is $15 for adults and free for youth.

In a new exhibit, the New Orleans Museum of Art presents the artistic, social, and political impact of Black studio photographers across the country. “Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers” showcases hundreds of photos from the 1800s and 1900s.

Ranging from vintage action shots of Xavier University’s football team, family portraits and even a daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass, “Called to the Camera” celebrates American photography through a Black lens. Viewers are challenged to see “that a photograph can be both typical and spectacular at the same time,” exhibition curator Brian Piper said.

The Gold Rush–Xavier University of Louisiana Football Square, Gelatin silver print by Arthur P. Bedou Credit: Xavier Universi ty Archives and Special Collections. Image Courtesy of Xavier University of Louisiana, Archives & Special Collections © Arthur P. Bedou

“Photographs offered the ability to control one’s own narrative,” said Piper. “The practice of photography also became an imperative for its capacity to counter a white visual culture that was degrading and violent in its representation of Black people.”

A hand-tinted portrait of a young woman, 1950s Hand-colored gelatin silver print by the Rev. Henry Clay Anderson Credit: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Charles Schwartz and Shawn Wilson, 2012.137.2.3 © Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Photographers featured in the exhibit include Gordon Parks, Addison Scurlock, New Orleans’ own Florestine Collins, Arthur P. Bedou, and Nolan Marshall Sr. In addition to vintage selections, the works of some contemporary photographers, such as New Orleans native Polo Silk, are on view as well. 

As Black people gained more socioeconomic freedom, their spending power increased and Black-owned businesses grew. With more disposable income, Black people sought to have their portraits taken to affirm their identities. Black portraitists made their studios a world of their own, meticulously styling their subjects, who were often dressed in their Sunday best.

Austin Hansen’s photo of Eartha Kitt leading a dance class invoked the memory of Olympic gymnast Simone Biles’ 2020 Vogue portrait by Annie Leibovitz, a white photographer. Biles’ photoshoot was poorly lit, making her rich skin tone appear ashen and flat, and it was abundantly clear that Leibovitz had limited experience photographing dark skin.  Despite the backlash the shoot received, Vogue hired Leibovitz again to shoot Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, resulting in the same dim, disappointing photos.

Early cameras and photo development processes were created with white skin as the standard. As a result, Black photographers had to be creative to capture the essence of Black beauty. They used studio lighting to illuminate melanated skin. Hand-tinted photos allowed photo developers to convey the various shades and tones of Black people. The photographs were used to display status and well-being and were often mailed to family members and friends.

Lo Life, Lo Down, Club Detour, 1993 Unique Polacolor Print by Polo Silk Credit: Museum Purchase, Tina Freeman Fund, 2021.68 Copyright Polo Silk, Fab 5 Legacy Archive

To be photographed is to have one’s essence captured for generations to come, but as of 2020, Black people represented only 6.7 percent of professional photographers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The portraits displayed in “Called to the Camera” reinforce the need for Black photographers in our modern age.

Polo Silk emphasized the importance of Black people capturing memories and Black history themselves.

“Most of the time [outsiders] talk about New Orleans, they talk about the French Quarter. But they’re realizing my work shows the true, Black New Orleans.” Silk said. “People lost a lot of photos during Hurricane Katrina, they lost a lot of their families too. Being able to give people pictures of those they’ve lost has been the most important part of my photography journey.”

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Karli Winfrey

Karli Winfrey graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Public Relations from Loyola University. With a background in the New Orleans hospitality industry, Winfrey has first-hand experience with grassroots...