Collection 1880s–1940s

Robert H. McNeill. Make a Wish. 1937

Gelatin silver print, 6 3/4 × 8 11/16" (17.1 × 22 cm). Acquired through the generosity of The Friends of Education of The Museum of Modern Art and Committee on Photography Fund. © 2023 Heirs of Robert H. McNeill

Susan McNeill: My name is Susan McNeill. I'm the daughter of Robert H. McNeill, the photographer.

We're going to talk about my father's work, the Bronx Slave Market series. It was obviously a negotiating process between what we would call, today, a casual labor market, between the employee and the employer. And of course, using the term slave market associated with the transaction casts its own very sensitive and somewhat incendiary context.

Here's what my father said about the series: "I wanted to get away from the Black stereotypes and wanted to get away from the studio posing. I got Fortune to send me on assignment to cover the Bronx Slave Market. You know, these Black domestics would stand on a particular street corner in the Bronx and rich, old, white widows would dicker with them on the terms of the day's employment. Usually, something like 20 cents an hour. Well, I sent the pictures and I guess Fortune thought they were too hot to handle and never published them.”

Even though they were actually looking for a photographer to go to an African American labor market, I don't think they were really looking for the reality of what that entailed and my father honestly believed that his depiction of the bargaining and the situation was a little bit too raw for what they really wanted.

He was a documentarian. He wanted it real.