Robert H. McNeill. Lula Cooper Beauty Salon. c. 1940. Gelatin silver print, 7 3/16 × 9 1/2" (18.2 × 24.1 cm). Acquired through the generosity of The Friends of Education of The Museum of Modern Art and Committee on Photography Fund

Looking and Learning with Toni Morrison (1931–2019)

A curator remembers visual lessons from acclaimed writer Toni Morrison.
Sarah Meister August 9, 2019

Toni Morrison’s stories painted the black American experience with excruciatingly sharp beauty. Throughout the decades, many have had the pleasure of reading and teaching the late writer’s profound prose. The loss of Morrison’s voice is felt not just within the literary community—her influence defies genre, critically shaping the way we understand images, racial politics, and American culture. MoMA curator Sarah Meister shares her memories of being an undergrad deconstructing images in the classroom with Morrison, and how it shaped the way she sees photographs today.

Long before I dreamed of becoming a photography curator, I had the privilege of learning how to look at photographs with Toni Morrison. Like many of my generation (and the one that preceded mine, and countless that will follow) I had been transported by her written words again and again. If Beloved (1987) wasn’t required reading in my high school, it certainly felt as if it was among my peers. We didn’t just read Beloved, we experienced its mysterious presentation of reality and language as we worked through Morrison’s definitively proprietary literary style. She came to talk at my high school and captivated the audience with the way she spoke as much as her words themselves. I knew it was a long shot, but in 1993 (around the time she had received the Nobel Prize for Literature), as an undergraduate at Princeton, I applied for professor Morrison’s seminar “Studies in American Africanism.” To my delight, I was invited to join the seminar and, along with a small handful of similarly fortunate peers, I spent 12 dizzying afternoons in the presence of her greatness at 185 Nassau Street.

I wish I had a copy of the syllabus for that class so I could reread all of the books she felt were essential tools to think about the representation of African Americans in literature, art, and popular culture. This was a critical approach to reading and seeing American culture that might seem customary now, but Morrison’s lens was surely novel. I wish I could remember all of the images she put before us to attune our eyes to the ways in which black bodies could be equated with both desire and disdain. Most of all, I wish I could bring my present self back into that classroom…to hear professor Morrison’s unmistakable way with words once more. But even many years after that seminar, professor Morrison's insight regarding colorism in advertising helped me approach Hank Willis Thomas’s series UNBRANDED: Reflections in Black by Corporate America, 1968–2008, and when we acquired a group of photographs by the Washington, DC–based photographer Robert H. McNeill (see above), I am sure she would have noted with satisfaction that the aestheticians’ autonomy was reinforced by their individually articulated placement within the beauty shop interior.

From left: Hank Willis Thomas. Oh Behave: Smooth Exotic Vivid Taste, 1999. 2008; Hank Willis Thomas. Caramel Cocoa Butta’ Honey Lova’ You’re Like No Otha’, 1982. 2006
From left: Hank Willis Thomas. Oh Behave: Smooth Exotic Vivid Taste, 1999. 2008; Hank Willis Thomas. Caramel Cocoa Butta’ Honey Lova’ You’re Like No Otha’, 1982. 2006

Her attention to photography’s role in the construction and reinforcement of stereotypes helped us adjust our collective eyes to the bias embedded in the humblest of images. My final paper for professor Morrison’s seminar took as a point of departure images of African American women with the white children under their care. The most iconic of these is surely Robert Frank’s Charleston, South Carolina (the 13th plate in The Americans).

Robert Frank. Charleston, South Carolina. 1955
Robert Frank. Charleston, South Carolina. 1955

I can imagine professor Morrison asking me to consider the invisibility of the figure whose generous arms embrace and protect the almost blindingly white baby, while encouraging me to look as well at the multiple precedents by unknown photographers that capture a similar dynamic.

Frances Benjamin Johnston. The old folks at home. 1899–1900
Frances Benjamin Johnston. The old folks at home. 1899–1900

A few months ago, I sent professor Morrison a copy of my most recent project: a publication of Frances Benjamin Johnston’s Hampton Album, which she had generously offered to consider endorsing. I hope she was well enough to read it, if only to note her enduring influence on my thinking.

Frances Benjamin Johnston. A Hampton graduate at home. 1899–1900
Frances Benjamin Johnston. A Hampton graduate at home. 1899–1900

Johnston’s album includes a suite of before-and-after images, illustrating the purported benefits of a Hampton University education at the turn of the 20th century. The “before” images are clearly caricatures, requiring no special talent to recognize the implied inferiority of the lives pictured. I suspect she would have found the “after” images more worthy of close attention. Is that resignation we sense in the expression of the patriarch? Suspicion in the eyes of the two children who look directly into Johnston’s camera? Is that steely resolve or indifference we detect in the mother’s face? Can we read these as a rejection of the Victorian ideals that were held as a model for Hampton graduates? Or merely a reflection of the aching complexity of the worlds in which we live? Sitting with the uncertainty seems more important than knowing the answer.

What a gift to discover that for someone so deeply committed to and connected with language, the unspoken, even contradictory, messages of photography were equally compelling.