A chance discovery and a lucky save is part of the story behind a new Nasher Museum exhibit of work by an early 20th century local photographer whose portraits were unusual for including people of all classes and races with dignity and respect. The exhibit grew out of a new book by Duke's Center for Documentary Studies.
Self-taught photographer Hugh Mangum was born in 1877 in the newly incorporated, tobacco- fueled boomtown of Durham. As an itinerant portraitist working primarily in North Carolina and Virginia in the shadow of the segregationist laws of the Jim Crow era, Mangum welcomed into his temporary studios a clientele that was both racially and economically diverse.
After his death in 1922, his glass plate negatives remained stored, out of sight, in a tobacco barn on his family farm for 50 years. Slated for demolition in the 1970s, the barn was saved at the last moment, and with it, this surprising and unparalleled document of life at the turn of the 20th century, a turbulent time in the history of the American South.
One of the profound surprises of Mangum’s work is its artistic freshness. Mangum’s multiple-image, glass plate negatives reveal the open-door policy of his studio.
As art historian Deborah Willis writes in the catalogue foreword, the photographs “show us lives marked both by notable affluence and hard work, all imbued with a strong sense of individuality, self-creation and often joy.” Seen and experienced in the present, the portraits hint at unexpected relationships and histories and also confirm how historical photographs have the power to subvert familiar narratives.
Mangum’s photographs are not only images; they are objects that have survived a history of their own and exist within a larger political and cultural history. Rendered here in full color with the aid of 21st-century digital technology, Mangum’s portraits demonstrate the unpredictable alchemy that often characterizes the best art—its ability over time to evolve with and absorb life and meaning beyond the intentions or expectations of the artist.
“Where We Find Ourselves: The Photographs of Hugh Mangum” goes on exhibit at the Nasher Museum Jan. 19 and runs through May 19. This exhibition is organized by Margaret Sartor, independent curator and Duke instructor, and Alex Harris, professor of the practice at Duke, in association with the Center for Documentary Studies and with assistance from the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.