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May 8, 2022

Stunning Studio Portraits of American South at the Turn of the 20th Century

During Hugh Mangum’s lifetime (1877–1922) monumental events occurred in the US. Laws separating white and black people arose, the last Native vs American battles were fought, women gained the right to vote, and laws to limit immigrants were passed. The personalities in Mangum’s images collectively symbolize the triumphs and struggles of these turbulent years.

Inside or outside his photo studio, Hugh Mangum created an atmosphere –– respectful and often playful –– in which hundreds of men, women, and children genuinely revealed themselves. Mangum’s images from the Post-Reconstruction South show personalities as immediate as if they were taken yesterday.

Born and raised in Durham, Mangum began establishing studios and working as an itinerant photographer in the early 1890s, traveling by rail through North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. Remarkable for his time, Mangum attracted and cultivated a clientele that drew heavily from both black and white communities. Though this era was marked by disenfranchisement, segregation, and inequality –– between black and white, men and women, rich and poor –– Hugh Mangum portrayed all of his sitters with candor, humor, and spirit. Above all, he showed them as individuals, and for that, his work is both historically vital and personally mesmerizing. Each client appears as valuable as the next, no story less significant.

Self-portraits, circa 1905-10.

The Penny Picture camera that Hugh Mangum used was ideal for creating inexpensive and accessible novelty portraits. Anywhere from six to twenty-four sitters could be photographed on one negative, reducing cost and labor. As a result, the order of the individual images on a single Penny Picture print reflects the order in which his diverse clientele rotated through the studio, the prints reasonably representing an afternoon or a day’s work for this gregarious photographer.

During Mangum’s lifetime he likely exposed thousands of glass plate negatives. Sadly, most of these were destroyed through benign neglect after his death or are now lost, as were almost all records of the names and dates associated with them. The images that survived, around 700 glass plate negatives, were salvaged from the tobacco pack house where Mangum built his first darkroom. For decades, the negatives caught the droppings of chickens and other creatures living in the pack house. Today they are in various states of an unfortunate, yet often poetic, deterioration. Some plates are broken and on others the emulsion is peeling away, but the hundreds of vibrant personalities in the photographs prevail, engaging our emotions, intellect, and imagination.

There are no indications that Mangum intended his photographs to serve any political purposes, but it is likely that for many of his sitters, in fact they did. By the turn of the 20th century, African Americans were well practiced at engaging the power of photography to challenge racial ideas, as well as to create and celebrate black identity. For Mangum’s black clients, a studio portrait was one way to emphasize and attest to their accomplishments, prosperity, beauty, and individuality. They shared the pictures with friends and made them the foundation of family photo albums, ultimately using them to shape their own identities and those of future generations.

When asked what impressions her grandfather’s pictures have left on her, Martha Sumler replied: “It makes me realize just how much he really liked people. I know it was a business for him, and he worked hard, but he had to have really enjoyed it and enjoyed meeting the people to show the way life was back then.”

(Photos: Sarah Stacke and Hugh Mangum Photographs/David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library/Duke University)


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