Photographer Hugh Mangum was an uncanny portraitist. Maybe it was because of the professional hypnotist training he received as a young man. His good-humored nature and fondness for quirk, his own and others, probably enabled his clients to be both at ease and aware of themselves in front of his camera.
Mangum worked in North Carolina and the Virginias at the turn of the 20th century, setting up temporary studios in towns along the railroad lines. A businessman and artist who supported his family, he welcomed clients from across racial and economic divides. The archive he left behind allows a penetrating gaze into the segregated South during Redemption and Jim Crow, the turbulent and far-reaching eras that bolstered white supremacy after the Civil War and Reconstruction. Mangum’s archive also encompasses World War I, women’s suffrage and debilitating legislation aimed at immigrants and Native Americans.
The historical value of Mangum’s work lies in his skill as a photographer, the clients he attracted and cultivated and in the equipment he chose. Mangum, I learned when I began researching his archive in 2010, often used a Penny Picture camera. Designed to allow multiple and distinct exposures on a single glass-plate negative, Mangum would reposition the negative behind the lens after each exposure. The resulting sequences mirror the order in which his diverse clientele flowed through the studio on a particular day.
As remarkable as the grids themselves are the technical mistakes the Penny Picture camera caused. If Mangum forgot to advance the negative between frames, a double exposure was created; some photographically merge black and white sitters, others men and women, and a few scramble a sitter with himself. If the negative wasn’t moved quite far enough, the portraits overlapped slightly, which made the sitters look as though they were gently leaning on each other, their shoulders lightly touching.
On several occasions, the elbow, hand or arm of one sitter floats into her neighbor’s frame, regardless of color, symbolizing shared spaces beyond the boundary of the glass plates. It is these lawless, accidental compositions — binding the sitters forever — that help us imagine both the common and distinct experiences of those pictured.
It’s plausible that Mangum’s clients briefly or lingeringly occupied his studio at the same time, unified in a quest to arrest their likeness in a photograph. In downtown Durham, N.C., where Mangum was raised and started his career in the early 1890s, black and white residents dwelled side by side. As neighbors, they would be aware of one another’s daily rhythms — when the candles were lighted and snuffed, when the laundry was hung on the line to dry. Their paths would align when leaving or returning home from the grocer, the butcher, dates and work.
Mangum’s negatives offer a nuanced account of Redemption and Jim Crow, movements marked by the rise of laws and customs separating whites from blacks that were put in place to eliminate the gains of black Americans during Reconstruction — citizenship, access to education, the right to vote and to hold political office and more. Seen in their entirety, the glass plates question the convenient narrative of a black-and-white binary during the years Mangum photographed and afford more agency to black and brown people than in the average textbook.
There are no indications that Mangum, who died in 1922 at 44 years old, intended his practice to overtly serve any political purposes. Yet the prescient grids created by the Penny Picture camera reflect black Americans’ steadfast resistance to white supremacy and fight for equality, one that employed photography as a counternarrative to racist ideology before, during, and after Mangum’s time.
The blended images also speak to the effort of women on both sides of the color line to dismantle the barriers that separated male and female worlds. Women claimed access to education, found employment in positions previously reserved for men and demanded the right to vote.
Ultimately, the double exposures in Mangum’s archive — frenetic, bold, wary, spry — created by a physical push and pull, are emblematic of the tides of history and their very real effect on human lives. Though the identities of most of Mangum’s sitters are unknown, presumably many of those pictured lived through, and in one way or another participated in, the shifts from Reconstruction to Redemption to Jim Crow.
The oldest among the archive would remember the Civil War and slavery. There are men who fought in World War I and loved ones who anxiously awaited their return. Presumably, many of the black men and women pictured were working publicly and privately to establish black agency, independence and community vitality. The efforts of these everyday people formed the bedrock of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
After entering Mangum’s studio, people sat resolutely, curiously, gracefully, dreamily and politely before his lens. Many played — Mangum encouraged it. And there were those who sought a portrait because, despite living in a time full of restrictions, many of which were enforced with violence, they believed in a life without limits. A photograph was one way to divine a fragment of that life, whether it was social mobility, unrestricted love, equality or whatever “limitless” personally meant to someone. In Mangum’s archive, boundaries — in life and in photographic space — are blurred, subverted, defied and overthrown. After all, being seen is what begins a revolution.
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