Last week I accompanied my ‘Fashion and Photography: viewing and reviewing global images of dress over the last one hundred years’ undergraduate class to see the recent exhibition, co-curated by Renée Mussai and Mark Sealy MBE, at Autograph ABP, who are based at Rivington Place in Shoreditch. Black Chronicles II displays over two hundred never previously exhibited or published studio portraits of black subjects, including visiting performers, missionaries, students, dignitaries, servicemen or as of yet unidentified Britons, throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. The exhibition thus resurrects an unacknowledged archive of black photographic history in glass plate negatives and carte-de- visites held by the London Stereoscopic Company that have been buried in the Hulton Archive. Victorian Britain is re-presented in hauntingly beautiful and visually rich blown-up photographs, produced in a monochromatic palette and through a critical lens inspired by the influential writings of Jamaican born academic Professor Stuart Hall (1932-2014).
Highlights include portraits of Kalulu, the young companion to British explorer Henry Morton Stanley, and over thirty group and individual images of members of The African Choir (South African performers who travelled around the UK between 1891-3). Whilst these photographs reference Britain’s imperial and colonial past, and it would be easy to interpret them in terms of exotic ethnographic ‘types’, they unequivocally demonstrate black subjectivity through the self-assured styling of the sitters. Identities are fashioned through the use of props, accessories and fabrics, and the crispness and clarity of the reportage highlights these various textures. Gestures and poses are also employed to enable the sitters to consciously and thoughtfully engage with the photographer’s gaze. So, whilst it is important to understand the social, cultural and political conditions within which the photographs were produced, it is also vital that we readdress the images in terms of the subjects’ self-fashioning and self-presentation in order to fully understand the shifting asymmetries of power at play in black portraiture, then and now.