Since the beginnings of photography in the United States, professionally shot studio portraits have provided an essential means of self-representation for black Americans. Commercial studios across the country offered space for black photographers to create portraits for their sitters — and of the beauty they saw in their own communities.
The work of more than three dozen of these photographers is collected in Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers, currently on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA). The exhibition celebrates famous portrait painters such as James Presley Ball, James Van Der Zee and Addison Scurlock, alongside other image makers including Arthur P. Bedou, Florestine Perrault Collins, Morgan and Marvin Smith, Austin Hansen, etc. .
Called on camera is the first exhibition to focus exclusively on this national cohort of artists and entrepreneurs, situating this group within a larger inclusive history of image-making. Black studio photographers produced commissioned work for paying clients, while engaging with and responding to important artistic styles of the time – from pictorialism to modernism.
Also included are photographs taken outside the physical walls of the studio, spanning genres like documentary, fashion and photojournalism. All of these photographs together show how these images have influenced black culture, American history, and photography as we understand it today. To this end, Called on camera includes the work of a number of contemporary photographers who create works in response to this rich lineage. These artists include Alanna Airitam, Endia Beal, Elliott Jerome Brown Jr., Jeanne Moutoussammy-Ashe, Tiffany Smith, Selwhyn Sthaddeus “Polo Silk” TerrellAaron Turner and Eric Waters.
The exhibit reframes the history of American photography by placing photographers and black subjects at the center of that history, arguing for a reconsideration of how historians and institutions assess and present photography.
Called on camera is on view at NOMA until January 8, 2023.
For more information, visit noma.org.