by Maria Porges
As Susan Sontag once put it, “ Photographs furnish evidence.” In ways both overt and subtle, this exhibition of mostly carte de visite —portable calling card images popular in the early years of photography—illustrates Sontag’s assertion, highlighting the importance of such evidence in the ongoing process of writing and rewriting history. The central subject of the show is Sojourner Truth, a former slave who spent most of her adult life tirelessly campaigning for the abolition of slavery, financing her efforts through public speaking and selling her carte de visite images as well as copies of her autobiography. Though unable to read or write, she was well informed and famously articulate; her book, dictated to others, went through several printings in her own lifetime.
Calling cards were part of life in the 19th century, presented when visiting someone at home. In 1854 a French photographer patented a method for creating eight pictures on one large photographic plate, thereby making 2.5 x 4-inch pictorial calling cards affordable for a wide audience. They quickly became popular in the United States as a way to make and share portable and inexpensive portraits of loved ones. Soon, pictures of famous people —like Sojourner Truth — were collected in albums, along with propaganda for both sides in the Civil War.
Over 80 carte de visite are in this show, including nine that feature Truth. From these small but powerful photographs, to early examples of paper money, to copies of Truths’ book, the materials included in the exhibition are gifts and loans collected by UC Berkeley art history professor Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, author of the 2015 study Enduring Truths: Sojourner’s Shadows and Substance (University of Chicago Press). The text for the detailed and startlingly
frank brochure that accompanies the show is drawn from Grigsby’s book, and describes each of the 84 images or objects on display, succinctly demonstrating the ways in which Truth made her portrait into a form of paper money (then coming into use for the first time, rather controversially) in her fight to end slavery. The show also touches on the portrayal of skin tones as complicated by the limits of photography, on the use of carte de visite for propaganda, and Truth’s collection of autographs, among other things.
Born in the last years of the 18th century, Truth witnessed the invention and rise of photography as a popular and relatively accessible medium. She also had a canny understanding of its usefulness in the years leading up to the Civil War. The show begins with images dating from the early 1860s, including propaganda images both for and against the Union side and several pictures of Truth. The first of these portraits are uncaptioned, but after 1864, her images bore the saying “I sell the shadow to support the substance,” as well as Truth’s name and a copyright. The last was highly unusual; copyright was usually held by the photographer, not the subject, but Truth made a point of obtaining the rights to her own image.
Some of the works on display are carte de visite versions of political cartoons (on both sides of the conflict) as well as portraits of soldiers, generals, and some troubling pictures of light-skinned African American children who were “redeemed” through adoption by white families. There are several examples of the way carte de visite were once used to raise money for the Union or abolitionist causes, some of which portray Civil War amputees. Another group of images suggests the depth of the debate about money (paper versus metal, giving rise to the terms “greenbackers” and “copperheads”). And a fascinating section of formal portraits of African Americans shows how photography made this kind of memorialization of family ties affordable. In hand-embellished tintypes, tiny strokes of gold paint gift those depicted with gleaming accessories and fancy frames.
These are small images, and require patience and attention, but the effort is rewarded. Augmented by Grigsby’s sharply intelligent text, the story they tell is both fascinating and presented with a thoroughness that is altogether too rare, since the prevailing belief in museums seems to be that the attention span of visitors is microscopic.
It’s good to be reminded that history is not a set of immutable truths — that the powerful can’t always render the powerless invisible. Grigsby shows us that evidence can be found, assembled, and put to work. While it is certain that this show (and her scholarly text) have been in the making for many years, both are timely. Slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, but the almost immediate claw-back of rights granted to African Americans by the Supreme Court's November 1883 overturning of the Civil Rights Act initiated many decades of separate and unequal treatment. Even the civil rights movement of the ‘60s and the legislation that followed failed to end broad social and institutional discrimination, as highlighted by recent events and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement. Grigsby’s incisive insights and sharp language demonstrate what a university art museum can do to help, by teaching the viewer something she didn’t know — whether about the history of photography, the life of an important abolitionist figure, or the maddening slowness with which change takes place.
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Sojourner Truth, Photography, and the Fight Against Slavery @ BAMPFA through October 23, 2016.
About the Author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of nearly 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.
Images: UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, gift of Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby.