Smithsonian’s “Double Exposure” photo book series depicts black Americans championing their lives through photographyHistorians in the News
tags: Smithsonian, museums, photography, African American history
Regal would be the best way to describe the photograph of Mary Church Terrell. Delicately swathed in lace, satin and crystals, the charismatic civil rights activist is seen in profile. The front of her tasteful Gibson pompadour is dappled with light and her face is illuminated as if a single ray of sun had parted the clouds in the sky. It’s a highly flattering image of the D.C. activist and suffragist, and Terrell thought so herself.
“In some of the material we got from [Terrell’s] family, we know that she had sent [this picture] to the Chicago Defender for which she was writing a column for a few years,” says Michèle Gates Moresi, supervisory curator of collections at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “She wrote on the back of it, ‘make sure you return this photo.’ And I thought that spoke to her understanding of the importance of controlling and owning your image.”
Moresi, Laura Coyle and Tanya Sheehan are contributing authors of the new book Pictures with Purpose, the seventh installment of the museum’s photo book series, “Double Exposure,” which shares some of the 25,000 rare photographs held in its collections.
Pictures with Purpose examines the collection’s photographs from the turn of the century, when African-Americans were reconciling the painful aftermath of enslavement and forging a new future fighting for equal rights. Coyle, who is the head of cataloguing and digitization at the museum, says photography was embraced by African-Americans during this period, as it was a means for them to reshape the narrative.
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