“What are we to make of this photograph by the infamous Nazi propagandist who worked for Adolf Hitler?” asks Maklanaksy. “Of course, the cruelest irony is that Owens returned to an America that was still segregated.”
A portrait of Jackie Joyner-Kersee shows her torso from the rear, revealing the sculptural muscles that ripple across her back. On the other side of the room is another rippled back — this one belonging to Gordon, a slave, whose skin had been flayed by whipping.
Blind Tom, subject of another well-known slave portrait, is nettlesome in so many ways. The slave was a musical prodigy whose owner took him on a concert tour to raise money for the Confederate cause, which is irony enough in itself.
And then there is the additional irony of seeing the face of someone who can’t see it himself.
At some point along the way in the evolution of photography, the person behind the camera took on some importance, along with the person in front of the camera.
“So we see photographs not just of someone but by someone,” Maklansky says.
Some of those someones were celebrated African American photographers, such as Prentice H. Polk, Addison Scurlock, Anthony Barboza and Arthur Bedou, a New Orleanian who had a studio in the city from about 1900 to 1960 and who shot the portrait of Booker T. Washington in the exhibit.
“Many New Orleanians, particularly African Americans, could look at the wedding portraits or graduation photos that line their hallways or are cherished in their albums, and they might see Bedou’s name on the bottom,” says Maklansky.
“Like James VanDerZee, the famous Harlem Renaissance photographer, Bedou was documenting his own culture. He was a man of New Orleans photographing the people of New Orleans.”
Gordon Parks, the renowned and recently deceased photographer who himself appears in a portrait at the Old Mint, once wrote about the power of the portrait in a way that serves as a summation of the exhibit:
“Regardless of the medium used to facilitate it,” he wrote, “portraiture is the pictorial representation of an individual and it can be challenging, interesting and historically significant — capable of embracing an era and the people who exist within it.”
The portraits will remain on display through June 1.
(The New Orleans Times-Picayune)
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