Writer John Jeremiah Sullivan shares a collection of early photographs of Black life and music.
John Jeremiah Sullivan
Oct 15, 2020
Listen to the playlist John Jeremiah Sullivan assembled to accompany this article.
For about twenty-five years (basically since I got out of college) I have been collecting old photographs, with a special eye to the obscure—not images of famous persons or events, in other words, but visually remarkable pictures of the unidentified and in most cases unidentifiable. I am not what serious collectors would consider a serious collector. It has always been a hobby, and I have never had enough expendable cash. I am persistent, however, in my fixations, and over the years have been able to find a small number of unique and arresting photographs, focusing in particular on the early history of Black music in America.
As a privileged white guy who writes a lot about Black history and culture, I prepared myself early on to take lumps for the unavoidable degree of cultural appropriation present in the mere act of doing the work, and I will not lie: at times it can feel vampiric. I tell myself that my reasons are relatively pure: I was drawn to the subject not out of white Southern guilt (my family fought and died for the Union), nor even, in the beginning, out of an especially well-developed political ideology, but by a storytelling instinct, which I trust as a fundamentally human faculty. The Black experience in this country is one of the most dramatic and wrenching stories in American history full stop. For reasons familiar to us all, it has received through the centuries much less attention than its white counterpart, to say nothing of material resources put toward its preservation. It is also true that at multiple junctures in American history it has been in the interest of the power structure to suppress, if not erase, whole chapters of Black American history.
In other words, there is much recovery work to be done. For this reason, there exists an honorable role for a person of any background who wishes to participate in that larger project. As the controversy over the 1619 Project at The New York Times Magazine has recently made blazingly apparent, getting to the truth about the story of race in American history is key to any real understanding of our democracy. That understanding is key to the ongoing process of pushing our society closer, by inches, to the vision of equality that gave birth to it, or at least was present for the birth. To study and publish scholarship on Black history is to be active in the struggle for social justice. And it is healthy to forgive yourself for the necessary self-interest involved in any piece of writing. This is as true for Black scholars of Black history as for anyone else. Everyone’s past is another country. Such are the things I think when feeling sheepish about the whiff of trespass that hangs over the work of writers like me.
These anxieties create specific problems where the collecting of vintage Black photographs is concerned. I not infrequently have to wonder, after encountering some memorable picture in a small-town antique shop or on eBay, how the object had come to be “lost” in the first place. Experience suggests that the Black photographs one encounters in doing this sort of foraging are simply more interesting than the white ones. Visually and aesthetically, I mean, and in the frequency with which historically significant pictures occur—significant not in the sense of having a relation to an “important” historical personage or event, but insofar as they reveal the unfamiliar: Contexts, fashions, customs, and faces that we have never seen and need to make room for in our imaginations.
If I were reading that, I would immediately think: objectification, fetishization, and the cryptic sense of power that comes with ownership. Doubtless I can fall prey to those like everyone I have ever known. There may, however, be a more concrete and perhaps a darker reason. It has always been harder for Black Americans to hold on to their family photographs. All of the things that can strip a person or family of these treasures—displacement, eviction, fire, gentrification, motivation for selling, difficulty in preserving—will show up at higher levels in a population that is economically disadvantaged and socially oppressed. I have more than one photograph that probably ought to be in someone’s family album. An old woman should be showing it to her grandchildren. Only, I could never find that person. The alternative is not reunion with the rightful owner but potential oblivion. At times you face a version of the question archaeologists have to deal with: At what point does a grave, a human grave that means something to a family or community, become a “burial” that belongs to the domain of science? Is there an exact age that marks the line between “excavation” and grave robbing? What if the graves are about to be washed away, as these ephemeral artifacts are always in danger of being? Doesn’t salvage, at that point, become a duty?
It is a pleasure and in some way a relief to share these pictures with MoMA and to have them presented here. I am glad that they consented to live in my house for a while. It has enabled me to look at them with real attention and now to write something about them. They don’t require writing about. In fact, the primary reason that each one spoke to me was a quality they had in common of instantly communicating some kind of essence, what I used to call aura and now don’t know what to call. Our appreciation of them can expand with knowledge of the historical context, but this is only ever a deepening of an impression that had been created in the moment of confronting the image. I feel looked at by some of them. If that smacks of necromancy, well, it has walked hand-in-hand with photography since the earliest experiments. The art seems to have a singular power to impart undeniability to another person’s existence, even after death, or especially after death. There is a good sentence in an essay of Thomas Mallon’s published in The American Scholar some years ago. Describing the “first sunlight photograph of a human face,” taken in 1840, he writes, “there she sits, in her bonnet, the first verified person to my way of thinking.”
As for these photographs, I hope only that you are moved by them. None has ever been published or reproduced, that I know of. If the erasure of their provenance owes to misfortune, it also allows a kind of access to the universal. Countless unknown voices speak through them. This has a corollary when it comes to the question of who took the pictures. Were the photographers Black or white? Our inability in almost every case to answer that question puts us on interestingly destabilized ground. The faces here are freed, perhaps, from what the scholar Saidiya Hartman (in her essential Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments) refers to as “the burden of representation” under which the black subjects of white anthropological photographers were “bound to appear” (italics hers). That may be happening in some of the pictures here, or it may not. The images are all that is left. The images, and a particular message they seem to bring, that these lives mattered.
An ambrotype that was living in Maryland when I bought it. Not sure where it’s from originally. My gut (I use the word with all due lack of confidence) says that the man may be a mixed-race Black American, as so many professional musicians in the South were in the mid-nineteenth century. The seller believed—and subsequent research has so far been at least unable to disprove—that this is the earliest surviving photographic image of a person playing the guitar. The strap and the positioning of his fingers suggest that he was a player, i.e., that it’s not a prop.
I wish that I could know more about this photograph. I love it purely as an image, and for the pressure of the human and American histories that press on it like a physical pressure from all sides. There is some kind of universal human gesture happening between the two women, but somehow also one that permits many readings. (It is dangerous to be overweening in one’s interpretation of human postures—ask the ghost of Aby Warburg). I imagine that the two women hadn’t seen each other in many years, and that this is an emotional reunion. Others see in it singing and prayer, and others a joke being told by the woman on the right, received by the one on the left. Somehow I see Georgia in the landscape. That’s a laughably unfounded guess, said mainly out of having nothing to say beyond: the south. Edge of porch dimly visible at right, north of center. The tatters in the younger woman’s sweater have their own eloquence.
I don’t know what to say about this one, except that for some reason I have been sporadically transfixed by this enigmatic portrait for years. Is it a man or a woman, or a trans-gender person? The eyebrows suggest a woman, the bowtie a man (or drag). The hair is phenomenal, actually beautiful, and the face unique. Is that a false nose? Had the subject lost it to syphilis? For some reason I love the way the chairback pokes through the crook in the person’s right arm. This is a photograph that typifies both the power and problems of old, untraceable pictures, especially where Black images are involved. On one hand, their high rate of obscurity—of possessing no traceable provenance—lends them a special power. Because they cannot speak for one they seem to speak for all. My family bought me this for Christmas several years ago, from a collector in New Orleans. The facts on whether it originated there or arrived by trade had already been erased.
When the industrialist George Pullman started producing his railroad sleeping-cars right after the Civil War, he hired black men exclusively to work as attendants on them. Pullman's decision was two-sided in two different ways. He preferred black workers in those roles because so many of them had recently been enslaved, and so in his mind they alone could wield the air of efficient servility needed to please his socially aspirational passengers. Yet the Pullman company came, as a result of his decision, to employ more Black workers than any other company in the United States. Pullman Porters made better money than pretty much any other Black laborers in the country. Still, the job paid less than any other on the railway. All in all, a bundle of contradictions. But there's no denying that the rise of the Pullman Porter as an institution helped bring into existence the black middle class, and the men themselves enjoyed a unique status in their own neighborhoods and communities. One of the first Black films was William D. Foster’s “The Railroad Porter.” Here are three anonymous photographs of Pullman porters, likely representing three different decades.
A group of stevedores playing dice on a wharf by the Missouri river, circa 1923. Sacks (of flour?) stacked on the left.
Black coal miner, Appalachia, probably West Virginia or Tennessee, taking a break with a bottle of Celtic beer, which dates the image to around 1905 (thanks to Tanner Potts, formerly a researcher with the Roberson Project in Sewanee, Tennessee, for that information). This picture shows a rarely captured subject. The story of the early Black coal miners is not well known, but they were an important force in the opening of the formerly impenetrable Cumberland mountains. Their presence was resented by local poor white miners and set off more than one labor riot. This man may be a “leased convict,” a job at times indistinguishable from enslavement. Operators often used such labor in the mines. Notice the acetylene lamp on his head. He seems to be barefoot. I have not been able to trace the label on the liquor bottle. Behind him a path recedes into the forest.
This one speaks for itself (which is good, because I know nothing about it). The only thing a person could miss, I suppose, are the brilliantly white shoes on the left.
Jockeys in racing silks, carrying tack, presumably somewhere in Kentucky (where it surfaced). The story of the early Black jockeys—who for a long time dominated that role in horse-racing—forms yet another buried chapter in Black American history.
This picture shows a crucial phase in the development of popular American music for which we have very few images—the mixed-race string band. Who are these guys and from where? I got nothing. The hairdo on the right (you know what I’m talking about) whispers 1900, but could be older or younger. (The gentleman’s stare, on the other hand—!) The fiddler on the right looks uncannily like a young John Updike. This may have been taken “live,” i.e., while a party took place around it. I don’t know what gives it that vibe. Seems like a person would work harder for a staged shot, I suppose, not let it look so crappy, what with the creepy dark blind and empty picture frame and whatever that is protruding from the wall (some kind of heater?).
This picture, unlike most of the others, comes with some specific information. Handwritten text on the back of the image reads:
“This picture was taken while I was at Silver Spring, Florida Feb. 1903. The old Slave in the picture is 120 yrs. & she told her experience in slavery days having nine Masters’s [sic] & twelve children most of whom were sold from her. Annie & I stand on the platform in front of the old lady while Mrs. Scott of New London is taking her picture. The boat on the right is the one which brought a large party of us tourists up the Ocklawaha river to S. Spring where we stopped a few hours to see the place.
“This picture was given me by Mrs. Scott while we were staying in St. Augustine & whom we met after the picture had been finished.”
Notice that the woman holds a walking stick and a tin cup for donations. But the photographer does not even mention the thing, or the other thing, that makes this photograph miraculous to me—the three young men sitting at the other end of the bench, two of them holding guitars, mid-strum. This is significant in part because of the year in which the picture was made: 1903. Scholars of the early Blues tend to agree about very few things, but all would tell you that the music seems to have first emerged as an identifiable genre in 1902 or ’03, and most of the origin stories (most famously W. C. Handy’s) involve one or a few black men playing guitars at a depot somewhere in the South. You know how, as astronomers look farther and farther into the universe, they keep looking further and further back in time, and are already observing galaxies that formed not even half-a-billion years after the Big Bang, and may eventually observe the event itself, or its most immediate manifestations? This photograph is like that for the formation of the Blues. One has tried to imagine this scene so many times without ever really expecting to see it. Then someone hands you a telescope and says, “Here.” The crumbling wooden house on the left, the train car, the old steamboat on the right. An old sign and two posters on the trees to the right of the man. The way the man is standing over the two musicians and pursing his lips suggests he’s singing. Friends of mine who are photographers always squint at this picture and wonder what kind of camera it was made on. It looks neither conventionally panoramic nor recognizably broad-format. Actually scratch that: I just got a message from Harry Taylor, here in Wilmington, North Carolina, OG master of American tintype technology and an active antique-camera obsessive. “It’s called a Cirkit camera,” says Taylor. “Made by Kodak in various sizes, very popular from about 1900 to the 1940s. The camera is on a geared platform. The camera turns one way, and the film turns the other way. Always wanted one.”
This picture came with the following label: “ca. 1910 African-American church revival meeting, Chesnee, South Carolina.” Otherwise there isn’t much to add that holds a candle to the image. These white dresses and bonnets sailing through the grass. Telegraph poles receding. There’s a white sign hanging on that tent, with writing, but I have never been able to tell what the letters are.
Club dancer, nineteen-teens. A disturbing and memorable photograph. I have heard stories, in Carolina Beach (not far from where I live), about these pop-up strip-shows in tents. All of the stories were dark. It was part of the carny world.
Another photograph that I love for its own sake—the tall shape of the young woman, the almost painted-on quality of the shadows on the road, the little photo-bomber in back. Her necklace, her bowlegs, her expression of Let’s get on with it.
Three women sipping drinks in the grass, c. 1910. This is one of my favorite pictures and I can’t say why, not because it’s too hard but because it’s too obvious. These young women are having a lovely time. Location: a meadow.
This is another photograph that preserves a major phase, in the evolution of American popular music, that left very few visual traces: the black horn-bands of the late-nineteenth century. I smiled when I saw it because in the written descriptions of these bands, it is always mentioned that two drummers were present, one bass and one snare, nick-named—in Wilmington, at least—“Boom-boom and Skee-skee.” Naturally I want to fantasize that it was taken in Wilmington, NC, and that the older man in front whose face is mostly erased, is the legendary Frank Johnson, playing with one of the last versions of his Shoo-Fly Band, but I don’t think it’s old enough (he died in 1872). It appears to have been taken in this part of the country. You can see palm fronds off to the right. Whoever these musicians are, the picture is a unique keyhole onto a musical tradition that lasted for decades and exerted a major influence on jazz, albeit one that is rarely discussed, because it was not preserved except in stories.
This marvelous image was made in Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1890s. We see yet another obscure American musical context of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries: A Black female string band, or guitar trio. Guitar and two ukuleles (I think). Aside from its unfamiliarity, this picture has special interest because of the studio in which it was made. The Chesnutt Bros., Lewis H. Chesnutt and Andrew Jackson Chesnutt, Jr., were the brothers of none other than Charles W. Chesnutt, the first great Black American fiction writer. These two brothers “opened fine photographic parlors on Euclid avenue” in 1891, according to an Indianapolis Freeman article from July of that year. Very few of their images are known to survive. The “EUCLID AVE.” identification on this particular photo dates it definitively to before November of 1901, when a fire destroyed multiple buildings on that street in Cleveland. On November 13th, 1901, the Record-Argus in Greenville, Pennsylvania, reported on the fire, adding by way of detail that the “Chesnutt Bros., photographers, were other tenants, and their loss is total, the entire building being a mass of wreckage.” The brothers soon set up shop in another location, and continued their photographic work for decades.
“Perle and Viola just after a music lesson 3 years ago.” That’s all this one says and all we know about it. And do we even know that? I.e., is it two women, Perle and Viola, or is the woman on the right named Perle and holding a viola? (Or are both true?) Whatever the case, it’s a classic. The way the lines of the sidewalk and house-boards diverge at an angle. The excellent low sash and bow on the black dress. The wiry sticks and grass in the foreground. Style looks nineteen-teens to me, but that’s a guess. Could be a bit earlier or later.
1926 Hawaii license plate. There was a “Soup Song,” a labor song (“I spent twenty years in the factory/ They gave me a bowl of soup” . . .), but it wasn’t written—by the labor lawyer Maurice Sugar—until the early thirties. And this is definitely a 1926 license plate. A mystery. Maybe the picture was pasted into the album five years after it was taken? The musicians here, or the person who preserved their image, may have meant the title jokingly: they were touring on the cheap and had to sing for their soup. In the very next year, 1927, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported on a dance at the Fairmont Hotel that had included “a particularly good negro jazz band.” Could that be these guys? Can there have been many Black jazz bands in Hawaii in 1927?
Either Lexington, Kentucky, or Lexington, New York—I have never been totally confident which. The letter looks more like an N than a K. On the other hand, there were only ten Black people living in Lexington, New York, in 1900, hardly enough to populate a music school for children of color. Wherever this was happening, it was beautiful. The cellist who is the same size as his cello cannot be beat.
John Jeremiah Sullivan is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and the Southern Editor of the Paris Review. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he works with the non-profit research incubator Third Person Project, dedicated to recovering the forgotten Black history of the Cape Fear country. His next book, The Prime Minister of Paradise, is forthcoming from Random House.
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