Tuesday, June 16, 2009

eyes that have looked at jim crow

In the timeless traditions of the internet, I stumbled upon a wonderful digital collection of early 20th-century African American photography at the august institution where I work (see credits below - also see this related post on historical photos of Chinese dogs). The website doesn't provide too much information about the photographer, Michael Francis Blake - only that he opened the first one of the first black photo studios in Charleston, South Carolina. Which, of course, is saying quite bit. {Corrected & updated: 1:12am, June 17, 2009}

I was delighted to see that two of the ~170 photos in the collection feature dogs. I love the shadow of the photographer (?) in this one:

The vast majority of the images of the collection are posed portraits, studio or outdoors. Without exception, Blake's clients were impeccably dressed for the occasion. This is a beautiful image that makes me almost want to cry: the elegance of the women, the sweet openness of the boy's face, the alertness of the little dog.

In these images, to paraphrase Roland Barthes, we are looking at eyes that have looked at Jim Crow. Or, in the case of the unidentified woman below, stared back and perhap even glared at it at choice moments. This is my favorite dogless photo in the lot. I just love the tilting of the chair, the insousiance of the gesture.

Image credits (from top): "snapshot, dog lying down, unidentified," "Seated elderly woman holding a small dog, standing child and two standing women, unidentified," "Standing woman outdoors, unidentified" from Michael Francis Blake Photographs, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University.