The Portland Art Museum’s photography curator, Julia Dolan, was browsing Instagram when she saw a cache of snapshots of African Americans like nothing she usually comes across online or in the archives she enjoys exploring. The vernacular snapshots of mid-20th-century African American life were from Peter J. Cohen’s collection (IG: @pjcohencollection).
“I contacted Peter right away and said ‘I have to have them!’ ” Dolan explains. Her enthusiasm led her to collections of other “vernacular” photographs of African Americans, and two years later this show was born.
The pictures are often grouped by theme: men posing with their cars; badly lit birthday parties and flash-lit silky graduation robes. “Vernacular” here means casual photography, from Brownie shots to Polaroids. Calling cards on paper or on tin were also a popular way to share a portrait, and from the 1880s on they cost as little as a few cents each.
American Orator Frederick Douglass was one of the most photographed men of any race during his later years. You won’t see him here, but you will see stunning studio portraits and candid snapshots of African-Americans, often finely dressed.
The show also features comfortably middle class photos from the estate of a North Portland couple, Carl and Judge Mercedes Deiz. (Carl was a Tuskegee Airman during World War II, and Mercedes was the first black woman to be admitted to the Oregon State Bar.)
The images are mostly free of the (photographer’s) dominant white gaze: these were taken of, by and for African Americans. Joseph Gallivan