THE MAN BEHIND THE CAMERA
Hugh Mangum was born in 1877 in the tobacco-fueled boomtown of Durham, North Carolina. The eldest of five children in a hard-working, well-respected family with a web of kinship that spread out across the county, Mangum considered himself an artist from a young age. In order to pursue his education in the fine arts, Mangum pushed the boundaries of what was generally considered appropriate for a man’s schooling at the time. As a boy, he took art classes at the Methodist Female Seminary in Durham and later studied art at Salem College, in Winston-Salem, the oldest educational institution for girls and women in the United States.
When Mangum was sixteen, his family moved from downtown to a farm at West Point on the Eno where he built his first darkroom. By 1897, he was making studio portraits and in 1899 began working as an itinerant portraitist. In 1906, Mangum married Annie Carden of East Radford, Virginia, and settled there. He returned often to Durham and continued to set up temporary studios in railroad towns throughout North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, until at least 1912. After a fire destroyed his Radford studio in 1919, Mangum took over a well-established permanent studio in nearby Roanoke, moving his family there in 1921. Hugh Mangum died of pneumonia in Roanoke in 1922 at age forty-four.
Mangum worked as an itinerant photographer during the rise of the Jim Crow era, a period in which laws were passed throughout the South to enforce segregation. Despite this, his portraits reveal a clientele that is both racially and economically diverse and show lives marked by notable affluence and hard work, all imbued with a strong sense of individuality and self-creation. One of the profound surprises of his photography is its artistic freshness. Hugh Mangum had a charm and curiosity that is often reflected in the faces of his sitters. In other images, Mangum’s presence as a photographer is invisible and the sitters appear lost in their own private, interior worlds. Mangum’s ability to capture these moments of vulnerability and intense self-recognition lies at the heart of his gift as a portrait photographer.
HISTORY OF THE GLASS PLATES
Hugh Mangum’s dry glass plate negatives are not only images; they are objects that have survived a history of their own and exist within a larger political and cultural history. Part of what makes Hugh Mangum’s work such an extraordinary contribution to both the historical record and the history of photography was his method of recording multiple portraits on a single glass plate negative. For most of his portrait work, Mangum used a Penny Picture camera—a small and somewhat rare camera, mounted on a tripod and equipped with movable backs. These movable backs, which held the individual negatives, could slide vertically and horizontally. Through a step-and-repeat process, it was possible for Mangum to record multiple exposures in rows and columns, creating a grid-like pattern of individual images on a single glass plate. These multiple-image plates provide viewers today with an unintended record of the succession of sitters who passed through Hugh Mangum’s studio on any given day.
After his unexpected death in 1922, Mangum’s negatives were stored in a barn on his family’s farm in Durham. Slated for demolition in the 1970s, the barn was saved at the last moment, and with it, this surprising and unparalleled document of life during a turbulent time in the history of the southern United States. The portraits made by Mangum hint at unexpected relationships and stories, and confirm how early photographs have the power to subvert common historical narratives.
Hugh Mangum’s negatives were salvaged through the unified efforts of activists Margaret and Holgar Nygard, Duke photographer David Page, North Carolina genealogist William Perry Johnson, and Hugh Mangum’s nephew Jack Vaughan. In 1986, the glass plates were donated to Duke University, where they were professionally cleaned and stabilized by highly trained conservators. In the 2000s, the negatives were photographed in high-resolution color with a digital camera and made available to the public as digital positives through the Duke Digital Repository of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Books and Special Collections Library. Though there is a long history of documentation, research, preservation, and use of Hugh Mangum’s glass plate negatives dating back to the mid-1970s, it is only recently that this important photographic work has begun to reach the wider audience it deserves.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS IN WHERE WE FIND OURSELVES
Hugh Mangum’s dry glass plate negatives have a history of their own etched and infused into their emulsion, a history fully visible now with the aid of digital technology. Initially exposed, processed, and printed by Mangum at the turn of the twentieth century, they were then stacked and stored in a tobacco packhouse barn, where they suffered decades of disregard. A century later, enriched in meaning and made more hauntingly beautiful by the effects of time’s passage, they surfaced in a world that had also changed. The original black-and-white glass plate negatives, seen now with their damage and decay fully visible, reveal portraits that are surprisingly vibrant; the cracks, fingerprints, and delicate color shifts that surround and sometimes cover the sitters’ faces give them new meaning.
In 2018, Margaret Sartor and Alex Harris created the photographic images in Where We Find Ourselves: The Photographs of Hugh Mangum 1897-1922, from digital scans of Mangum’s original negatives. Changed by time’s passage, these portraits speak to the nature of art as much as they do to the life and vision of Hugh Mangum. They are evidence of the unpredictable alchemy that often characterizes the most enduring art—its ability over time to evolve with and absorb life and meaning beyond the intentions or expectations of the artist.
In 2019, when curating the exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University that accompanied the publication of their book, Sartor and Harris experimented with scale, significantly enlarging a selection of portraits, sometimes to life-size, to create not only a sense of looking directly at the men, women, and children who sat before Mangum’s camera, but also of these individuals looking back at us. The Nasher Museum of Art exhibition forms the basis for the Where We Find Ourselves exhibit on view at the ACA Galleries in New York from September 7 through October 23, 2021.
Sartor and Harris, as curators of the exhibit at ACA Galleries, are donating 100% of their profits from the sale of any prints to organizations supporting refugee resettlement in the US—particularly in North Carolina where Hugh Mangum lived, worked, and welcomed people from all walks of life—and to non-profit organizations and institutions in North Carolina supporting photographic archives.