Some are sailors standing tall in uniform, others graduates in their caps and gowns. There are boys wearing their finest suits, women smiling in fur coats, and parents cradling newborns. The subjects are by and large unidentified, as are many of the photographers who captured them.
Part of an exhibition titled “African-American Portraits: Photographs from the 1940s and 1950s,” now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, these 150-plus images offers a rare glimpse of the African-American experience during a defining era—World War II, the end of the Great Depression, and the dawn of civil rights.
“In the age of the smartphone, acts of self-expression are at one’s fingertips 24/7,” says Jeff Rosenheim, curator of the department of photographs at The Met. “Our exhibition of African-American portraits from the 1940s and 1950s celebrates the desire to pose for oneself.”
Rosenheim and his team were able to definitively locate two sites that produced some of the exhibited works: Daisy Studio on Memphis’s Beale Street and H. Hick’s Studio in Swainsboro, Georgia. During the wartime economy, these studios were hubs of activity for the African-American community. They used waterproof direct positive paper to give their clientele high-quality, inexpensive portraits within a matter of minutes.
Rosenheim says the images point to “the powerful and beguiling role that the camera has had in art and society for now almost 180 years.”