In the segregated South, these studios (ostensibly) became successful African-American businesses that not only offered jobs, but also means of self-empowerment in an oppressive climate. This show focuses on a particular brand of studio portraiture used predominantly in the South and Midwest, which required a special “direct-positive” chemical process, sans negatives. As the demand for photography grew in the 1940s and ’50s, prices lowered, making sessions accessible to communities across socioeconomic classes.
Given few descriptive details, the viewer is free to imagine the particulars of the subjects’ lives and relationships. Five Men in Double-Breasted Suits (1940s–50s) features just what its title implies: two men sitting in front and three men standing behind them, the two on the sides leaning on what appear to be Doric columns. The fancy dress suggests a special occasion, and the pillars lend a ceremonious tone. The men in back beam with confidence, the two in front with skepticism and candor. The stories of both the group and the individuals remain obscure, open to myriad interpretations.
Though all of the photographs are in grayscale, hand-coloring adds a personal, decorative element to a small selection of the works on view. One subject’s solid red dress becomes the star of a group portrait. Another picture features a woman in a yellow polo shirt and green plaid skirt in front of a brushy background, giving the image a hazy, dreamy quality. Yet another woman’s grass-hued button-down adds vibrancy to a picture in which she leans into a man’s chest, ostensibly in a couples’ portrait, in front of a curtain.