African American Portraits: Photographs from the 1940s and 1950s at The Met Fifth Avenue, June 26 – October 8, 2018

This exhibition presents more than one hundred fifty studio portraits of African Americans from the mid-twentieth century, a time of war, middle-class growth, and seismic cultural change. The photographs generally feature sitters in a frontal pose against a painted studio backdrop—soldiers and sailors (men and women) model their uniforms, graduates wear their caps and gowns, lovers embrace, and new parents cradle their infants. Both photographers and subjects remain mostly unidentified. 

While The Met collection includes important portraits from the beginnings of photography in the 1840s to the present, the Museum has until recently acquired few likenesses of African Americans. The exhibition features acquisitions from 2015 and 2017 that are part of an initiative, long overdue, to build such a collection. 

The poignancy of these intimate photographs lies in the essential respect the camera offers its subjects, who sit for their portraits as an act of self-expression. Their presentation here is inspired by a lecture by Frederick Douglass, “Pictures and Progress,” first given in 1861. In it, the passionate abolitionist orator and former enslaved person highlighted the importance of photographic portraits to African American identity and self-empowerment. Believed to be the most photographed American in the nineteenth century, Douglass argued that African Americans needed to make “ourselves objective to ourselves,” because without positive self-representation there would be no freedom.” — Introductory Wall Text

“The process by which man is able to possess his own subjective nature outside of himself—giving it form, color, space, and all the attributes of distinct personalities so that it becomes the subject of distinct observation and contemplation—is at bottom of all effort and the germinating principle of all reform and all progress.” — Frederick Douglass, “Pictures and Progress,” 1861/65

PDQ Camera (Model G), 1930s-50s. Installation photo by Corrado Serra for Arts Summary.

Installation photo by Corrado Serra for Arts Summary.

Installation photo by Corrado Serra for Arts Summary.

Installation photo by Corrado Serra for Arts Summary.

Unknown American maker. Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unknown American maker. Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Daisy Studio (American, active 1940s). Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unknown American maker. Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unknown American maker. Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unknown American maker. Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unknown American maker. Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Daisy Studio (American, active 1940s). Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unknown American maker. Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unknown American maker. Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Daisy Studio (American, active 1940s). Studio Portrait, 1944. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Daisy Studio (American, active 1940s). Studio Portrait, 1942. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unknown American maker. Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unknown American maker. Studio Portrait, 1940s–50s. Gelatin silver prints. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Twentieth-Century Photography Fund, 2015, 2017. Image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 African American Portraits: Photographs from the 1940s and 1950s is organized by Jeff L. Rosenheim, Joyce Frank Menschel Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs at The Met.