Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.
—Martin Luther King
As a young and impressionable child, I discovered a box of dry plate glass negatives in my attic. I remember vividly holding the images to the light and peering into the faces of the sitters almost a hundred years after they sat for the portraits. The plates were negatives, and it wasn't until many years later that I was able to create positive images from them and see the fully realized people staring back at me. I've learned that they had most likely been photographed by an itinerant photographer making his way through rural Dallas County, Alabama. I was hooked—on photography, on historic images, on portraiture.
The experience of finding a lost image and of holding it in my hand solidified my fascination with photography and with the historic photographic image. My own photographic practice has centered around historic processes, and I now teach them to my students. I have developed a love affair with the lost image, the found image and the forgotten photographer.
It is Dr. King's words—the idea that what is seen is truly a shadow of that which has been left unseen—that have guided the creation of this exhibition. It is my hope to pull back the veil of forgotten or lost photographers and to allow a new look into our collective past through photographs. My hope is that viewers will curiously peer into the past, see a world that might seem new, and perhaps be interested in exploring a bit further.
—Kathryn Mayo, Professor of Photography at Cosumnes River College, Sacramento, CA
History is not just a chronicling of significant incidents in the past. While pivotal events have shaped the circumstances that affected society as a whole, not all communities experienced those circumstances in the same way, nor have these different experiences been represented equally in the dominant narratives of the historical canon. Recently there has been much scholarship and activism to rectify this inequity and to present a more fully formed and balanced accounting of America's past.
Bearing Witness: Manifesting Black History from Photographic Archives is curated by Kathryn Mayo, Professor of Photography at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, who teaches antique photographic processes and the history of photography. Mayo has been mining photographic archives for years in search of images that might expand the limited scope of whose stories are told in the telling of photographic history, bringing to light historical images that acknowledge the experiences and cultures of underrepresented communities of color. Cabrillo Gallery is honored to showcase Mayo's inclusive, equity-minded research, which is focused through the lens of visual culture, and manifests—through archived photographs—hidden histories embodied in lives lived outside of the dominant culture.
History is also made of the everyday experiences of the people who lived and breathed in the past, in the stories of their families, their work, their social circles, their cultural milieus, their joys and struggles—the complex interweaving of the personal, the social and the political. From the family snapshot and the professional portrait to chronicles of photojournalism, these images can be many things—mundane, profound, tragic, uplifting, horrific, beautiful, shocking, poignant, Intimate, public, personal, political, sad, funny… they give mere glimpses into the broad spectrum of perspectives on human experience, but they bear witness to the stories that history—in the case of these images, Black history—is made of.
A note regarding the use of capitalization for words that describe race: For the purposes of this exhibition, we have decided to use capital letters as a unified way to describe both Black and White individuals and groups.
Top: Thomas E. Askew, African American girl, half-length portrait, with right hand to cheek, with illustrated book on table; Library of Congress LC-USZ62-63574, Collection: W. E. B. Du Bois albums of photographs of African Americans in Georgia exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900
Middle: anonymous photographer, courtesy of private collection
Bottom: Hugh Mangum, Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, Durham, NC