When I first saw the Tang Teaching Museum’s recently acquired collection of more than five hundred found photographs, I was thrilled. The imagery, which includes various aspects of Black life, is rich, familiar, joyful, and robust. I was curious about the designation as “vernacular” photographs, knowing that this title can be used both to differentiate “fine art” from “non-art” and to describe everyday life. It was important to me, while working with student collaborator Amanda Peckler ’20 in the museum, to think about the many art forms that have purposely been excluded from the categorization of “fine art”—craft, folk art, outsider art, street art, documentary, etc.—and to consider why. The language we use is important, and the histories of these terms can inform how we view the work that has been institutionally set apart. What becomes clear is that these distinctions are commonly made along the lines of race, gender, and class.
We approached the collection with an awareness of what has historically been considered valuable and who has had the privilege of making that work. In the Tang collection, we see intimate moments, thoughtful portraits, celebrations, pride of accomplishments and ownership, outdoor leisure, joy!, the home, interracial relationships, and family love. These are real life experiences that challenge prevailing (negative) stereotypes of Black life. In a sense, this “amateur” work has more truth and value to me than most art in museum collections, particularly when it comes to African American subject matter, considering that 85 percent of work in eighteen major US museums belongs to white artists, and 87 percent is by men. African American artists have made just 1.2 percent of the total work across these institutions.(1)
We explored the collection, making categories according to subjects of interest, each time narrowing them down to smaller piles and fewer categories. Some of my favorite themes include family picnics, doorways/thresholds (the place or point of entering or beginning), portraits (studio and environment), and beach scenes (in reverence for the season). After much deliberation, I decided to make a celebratory photograph based on my favorite portrait in the collection. The image shows a beautiful young woman sitting in front of a hand-painted backdrop. Her gaze is direct and seems a little sad or reflective, but at the same time, she gives a subtle “smize.” I imagine she is at a threshold in her life, possibly marking a recent achievement, maybe leaving home for the next step of life. What is in her hands? Does she hold something? If so, will she carry it with her? What I love most is the painted nature scene that places her in a dreamlike space, a space open to possibilities. The image, by an unrecorded maker, is reminiscent of the ubiquitous Mona Lisa, who also sits against an imaginary landscape and emanates a similar expression.