Often our first response to old photos is to remark upon their beauty and admire their technical qualities. As Boseong Yun explains, we must not stop there. Photographs like those in the Chapman albums demand a much closer reading, one that goes beyond what we might know from other historical sources. Taking his cue from historians Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer, Boseong challenges us to look into the faces of Arabella’s family and friends and write another chapter of the past
While working on the Arabella Chapman albums I learned a new way to interpret photos. Understanding the albums required knowledge about the history of African Americans and the history of photography. Still, early in the semester, when I encountered a photo of an enslaved African-American woman holding a white baby, I could not read in that image signs of oppression and subjugation. I knew about the harsh circumstances of slavery, but I encountered difficulty seeing that history thorough photographs.
It was the medium of photography itself that blocked me from fully discerning the deep historical implications of images. I experienced fascination with the technical and aesthetic qualities of photographs. Only after I learned the history of photography and its relationship to African American resistance against oppression, did I see how some photographs of Africans Americans in the 19th century were legacies of a brutal, racist past.
Photographs offer us unwritten and subtle records of African American history that documents have failed to record. Professors Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer explain in Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery how “images of convicts…offer a powerful reminder of how black people’s freedom has been constrained, undermined, and revoked, and how deeply engrained in legal structures and labor relations was slavery’s fundamental ideology of black servitude and white supremacy.” (141) Such photos go beyond legal and political meanings to capture the pain and the agony experienced by African Americans that was often concealed by the term “Emancipation.”
Understanding the Chapman Albums requires knowledge from social and political history. But for viewers, new understandings will also come from the careful reading of the images themselves. What do you see in these faces?
— Boseong (Peter) Yun