Rare, striking and never-before-seen portraits of black citizens in Victorian-era England are going on display for the first time in the U.S., and organizers say the photographs have a powerful message for contemporary Americans riven by racism.
“There’s a healing aspect to seeing these exquisite images,” said Vera Ingrid Grant, director of the Cooper Gallery of African & African-American Art at Harvard University. The show, “Black Chronicles II,” opens there Wednesday and runs through Dec. 11.
“It changes our perceptions of the past, and can reverberate and change how we view the present,” she said.
Researchers found the trove of glass plates wrapped in brown paper and tied with string in storage at London’s Hulton Archive. Originally snapped well over a century ago and an ocean away, they debunk any notion that Britons of African heritage were all but invisible in 19th-century society.
Life-size black-and-white prints are interspersed with small snapshots, some culled from privately owned collections. They show ordinary people and a few minor celebrities posing for portraits in their Sunday best. Sequential shots capture a few playfully mugging for the box cameras that made the images, just as today’s wedding guests might goof around in a festive photo booth.
Together, they help write what Grant calls “a missing chapter” — that blacks of the era not only were very present in daily public life, but also prospered and enjoyed a certain dignity and social status.
Many of the more than 100 photographs on display were taken for “cartes de visite,” or calling cards: small, wildly popular postcards with an emblematic image and a splash of text. Much like a modern Facebook profile, they were designed to sum up the essence of a person.
“How many of these stories were hidden in the attic and never saw the light of day? Look what was covered up,” said Grant.