Kate Addleman-Frankel is the Gary and Ellen Davis Curator of Photography at the Johnson.

In 2017, the Johnson Museum and Cornell Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC) created a new position, a curatorship focused on photography that would span both units. One of my tasks in this position, as funded in part by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is to get to know as many of these many Museum and Library photographs as possible, identify those with potential for teaching on a broad spectrum of topics, and organize these into sets based around five major themes that were selected based on the area strengths of the collections and widespread curricular interest.

One of these themes is “Inequality and Legacies of Discrimination,” as it was originally titled. Reflecting on this over the past weeks I now wonder if it would be better titled “White Supremacy and Social Justice.” There are photographs in our collections that document injustices that go well beyond discrimination to abuse and genocide. There are photographs that communicate how we are not (or not only) facing the reverberations of past discriminatory practices and beliefs but the ongoing and systematic oppression and disenfranchisement of Black people, Indigenous people, and others long perceived as a threat to power structures. And there are photographs that model activism, courage, and intellectual and artistic brilliance in the face of tyranny.

In the multiplicity of their intended purposes and ultimate uses, photographs are unique among the various visual and textual sources that offer entry points to the topic of white power structures, their crimes, and their resistance. Photographs both record what can be seen and suggest—or directly express—what cannot. Gathering together photographic materials from the Johnson and RMC on this topic means bringing documentation, popular imagery, propaganda, family snapshots, studio portraiture, photojournalism, and the creative responses of artists into dialogue with one another.

Sometimes, the reference point of one image is illuminated by another: in her Backdrops circa 1940s, Lorna Simpson draws on once-common “paper moon” souvenir portraits, like the one of two boys, perhaps brothers, posing diligently with a crescent moon in an anonymous American studio.

In other cases, an image can be seen to build on a tradition of representation established over decades: In the Harlem photographer James Van Der Zee’s portrait of a woman smartly dressed in riding attire, all confidence in gaze and posture, are echoes of pictures of African Americans engaged with critical self-fashioning and self-empowerment in the years following the Civil War.1 The sitter in a hand-colored tintype inscribed “Marguerite, a former slave” radiates self-possession, her individuality unmistakable.

In images by photojournalists working during the same period but in very different spheres, we see the protests of the civil rights era as they manifested on the national stage in Selma, Alabama, and at the local level, at Cornell (visit the Willard Straight Hall Occupation Study Guide compiled by Eric Kofi Acree for more).

The photographic resources available at Cornell for the study of social injustices and their resistance go beyond the issue of race to encompass those of gender and sexuality, religion and culture, class, colonialism and neocolonialism, and the points of intersection between them all. The ongoing national and international protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police makes the project of gathering and promoting examples of these materials more urgent, while the continued lack of access to the Museum and RMC because of the COVID-19 pandemic makes ensuring their online accessibility more important than ever.

While we are working to get the project to a sharable state, we know that it will never be “done,” and we ask your help to suggest work from our collections that you think should be included.

 

NOTE

1. On the historic importance of studio photography within African American culture, see Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, Portraits of a People: Picturing African Americans in the Nineteenth Century (Andover, MA: Addison Gallery of American Art and the University of Washington Press, 2006) and Deborah Willis, Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits (Washington, DC: National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institute, 2007).