When images defy negative stereotypes, it's a beautiful thing, and the Portland Art Museum's newest exhibit explores everyday African-American life through an uncovered and collected trove of photographs.
With "Representing: Vernacular Photographs of, by, and for African Americans," the museum shows the faces of Americans through the lens of impartiality — without the impact of human bias. It's an exhibit that includes personal portraits and photos from the album of Carl and Mercedes Deiz, Polaroids from artist Zun Lee's personal collection, and snapshots from Peter J. Cohen's notable vernacular photography collection of every day African-American life. All gathered to demonstrate the rich diversity of ordinary life from the 19th century and into the 21st.
The impetus for the exhibit, which shows through Dec. 3, came from the uncovering of photos from an estate sale in North Portland. Larry Clark, a local vintage and antiques collector, had purchased an album containing photos of African-American individuals from an estate sale, and then posted some of the pictures on Instagram. One of his followers happened to be Julia Dolan, a photography curator at the Portland Art Museum.
Dolan had seen such images in historical books — portraits and photos depicting African-Americans in an ordinary fashion in the late 19th century/early 20th century, and not embellished or stereotyped such as seen in popular culture, postcards, cartoons and sheet music.
Dolan asked Clark, "How many photos are in it?" Clark told her they numbered around 100, all of African-Americans.
"I said, 'Stop, don't do anything with it,'" Dolan said.
She looked at the entire album, purchased it from Clark, and knew the photos had to end up displayed at the Portland Art Museum.
"As a photo historian, I know it's incredibly rare to see that many photos from the late 19th/early 20th (centuries) in one place," Dolan said. "They needed to be seen; we're caretakers of them, but they need to be seen. I said, 'We can't let that leave Oregon.'"
The photos serve as counterpoints to concurrent, mass-marketed images of former slaves, minstrels, unskilled workers and even lynchings.
That's only part of the story. It turns out the photos came from the estate of Carl and Mercedes Deiz. Carl was part of the Tuskegee Airmen — African-American military pilots who fought in World War II. Mercedes was the first African-American woman appointed as judge in the state of Oregon, and one of the first admitted to the Oregon State Bar.
Carl Deiz died in 2014 — Mercedes Deiz had passed away nine years earlier — and the estate sale followed. Through work with their son, Bill Deiz, it was determined that the people in the photos were relatives and friends of Bill Deiz's great-grandmother, Mollie Foster.
Foster was born in 1861 and died in 1963, and lived much of her life in the Midwest and then Oregon.
"It speaks to the ways that photographs move as people move," Dolan said. "Sometimes they get abandoned or thrown out, or end up on eBay and at garage sales and so on. ... It's very much about community and dispersal of community at the same time. ... And they're beautiful."
The photos from the album have been combined with some of Lee's massive modern collection of 3,500 Polaroids and about 80 photos from Cohen's snapshot collection from the 1920s-1960s to provide "an entire history through vernacular photography of African-Americans," Dolan said.
"It's a wider implication of what everyday personal photography can do to family and community. ... I have only seen 19th century photographs of upper/middle class (African-Americans) in history photography books. You see very few in real life. For an entire album to fall into my lap is amazing. What a way to remind people that images circulated in popular culture and news never tell the full story of a community or people. Photography has an amazing connection between truth and reality, and they can widen truth to what we already know to include multifaceted truth."