WHERE WE FIND OURSELVES - BOOK EXCERPTS

Excerpts from the book, Where We Find Ourselves: The Photographs of Hugh Mangum 1897-1922 (UNC Press, Chapel Hill in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, 2019) edited by Margaret Sartor and Alex Harris, foreword by Deborah Willis, Introduction by Michael Lesy.

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“These dazzling images—made even more dazzling by the work of time—are a celebration of life, suggesting that the sitters constructed their own narratives in collaboration with Hugh Mangum. In thinking about early to mid-twentieth-century photographic history, we might label these images as studies of the time and place, calling them vernacular; however, I would suggest that these portraits are much more complex than that. Magnum’s portraits impart a rare sense of empathy, joy, status, and community: they are not “typed” images, simple signifiers of status or station. They contain an implicit message that we must redefine our ways of looking, that we should look through his lens with a sense of empowerment rather than subjugation. And then we can find ourselves in the mirror of the sitter. ”

— Deborah Willis, from her foreword to Where We Find Ourselves

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“No one’s sure—for now—where many of his clients came from, but one thing is obvious: they were a racially diverse group. In an era of violent Jim Crow segregation, such diversity was unusual, perhaps even unprecedented. That Mangum’s portraits were as insightful, as unbiased—as existentially revealing as they were—is extraordinary. Even in the best of times, trust and empathy are rare between strangers. In an era of racial terror, the evidence of these feelings in Mangum’s photographs appears remarkable. So remarkable that the very existence of his work challenges the “common knowledge” of progressive, modern viewers—viewers who have assumed that all white Southerners living then were as racist as their spokesman and politicians. Understood as evidence and as works of art, Mangum’s images call into question current teachings about the history of the early twentieth-century American photography and about the history of Jim Crow race relations in the South.”

— Michael Lesy, from his Introduction to Where We Find Ourselves

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“The very best of his portraits open up and out and into the souls of the people who looked back at him. His studio was like a safe zone, the equivalent of a watering hole in a desert, a place where races and classes and genders gathered to be photographed by a man they trusted—a smiling fox of a man who radiated empathy and ease. A man who welcomed them, and by welcoming then gave them permission to be themselves.”

— Michael Lesy, from his introduction to Where We Find Ourselves

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“Mangum’s hometown of Durham was prosperous and would have provided a dependable client base for a portrait studio. So why did he choose to endure the unreliable income, the need to move cumbersome equipment from town to town, and the unending task of drumming up new business? What was it that Hugh Mangum could do as an itinerant photographer that he would not have been able to do by operating a permanent studio in one place? … Only by being itinerant could Mangum pursue a way of working in which he did not have to depend, as most portrait studios did, on the patronage of the wealthy and the elite. … And by moving from town to town and working out of temporary spaces, he would have been less answerable to local customs or ordinances, allowing him more freedom to relate to his sitters on both his terms and their own.”

— Margaret Sartor, from her essay in Where We Find Ourselves

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“A portrait is a convergence of time, luck, the constraints of the equipment, the mood of the subject, the skill of the photographer, and the unpredictable give-and-take that transpires in a fraction of a second. But given the range and number of distinct characters Hugh Mangum managed to portray, it seems that his willingness to personally engage with his sitters, or attempt to engage, was one of his best and most useful tools as a portraitist. In fact, the emotional exchange between Mangum and his sitters appears less contractual (as might have been expected in a more formal studio setting) than social. … he appears to have been interacting with them in the same way that many of us make friends.”

— Margaret Sartor, from her essay in Where We Find Ourselves

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“What Hugh Mangum has given us, in the work he left behind, is a collective, and subversive, portrait of the everyday in this particular region at a critical and transitional time in American history.”

— Margaret Sartor, from her essay in Where We Find Ourselves

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“These negatives had been exposed, processed, and printed by Hugh Mangum at the turn of the twentieth century. They were then stacked and stored, out of sight, in a packhouse barn, where they suffered a long night 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 photographs in this book, made from those glass plate negatives, or evidence of something astounding—the unpredictable alchemy that often characterizes the best art, and its ability over time to evolve with and absorb life and meaning beyond the intentions or expectations of the artist. The portraits made from these negatives speak to the nature of art as much as they do to the life or vision of Hugh Mangum.”

— Margaret Sartor, from her essay in Where We Find Ourselves

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“Without question, Hugh Magnum was a hard-working, serious artist, both talented and daring. Working on this book I came to see him as a kind of evangelist, a traveling healer with a tent, a message, and a camera. And even now as I write this, I picture him, lively and confident, handing out his broadsheets, urging people off the sidewalks and fairgrounds into his studio, convincing them that this opportunity was special; that they were special, and the resulting photograph a thing to treasure. After all, though Hugh Mangum may not have been promising immortality to his subjects, he did offer them an honest reflection of themselves in the world—a photographic portrait, which has a longer life than breath allows.”

— Margaret Sartor, from her essay in Where We Find Ourselves

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“As we looked at his portraits, Mangum’s exposures of a fraction of a second on glass made a hundred years earlier seemed part of a longer, more complex, and now, more colorful story. In the scratches, cracks, fingerprints, and delicate color shifts that surrounded and sometimes covered the sitters’ faces, we were looking at portraits of individuals through the portal of time. And in an image, sometimes what is hidden can be just as important as what is shown, particularly when what obscures that image also gives it a mysteriously beautiful quality. ”

— Alex Harris, from his essay in Where We Find Ourselves

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“No one living knows which portraits Hugh Mangum considered his most successful, or by what criteria he may have judged them. He worked in the early days of the medium, when photography’s artistic merits were still under debate and practitioners were trying to grasp what, beyond a commercial purpose, photography could accomplish. As portraits, however, there is one standard to which Hugh Mangum’s photographs would have been held—and still can be—and that is the degree to which they provide a “passkey,” as the writer Reynolds Price wrote of Eudora Welty’s photographs, “to a time and place much like all others, where life is lived in bolted rooms called men, women, children.”

— Alex Harris, from his essay in Where We Find Ourselves

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“Hugh Mangum’s portraits, especially those on his multiple-image glass plates, have the power to convey what is now beyond our reach, a sense of time, place, and people—a vital connection that is usually only arrived at by being there. On Mangum’s plates we get a glimpse, as through a door cracked open, of the lives of the citizens of these New South who were together, if only there and for that moment, in the waiting area of his studio and who are now connected for all time in the restored archive of his work. Mangum’s photographs point to the possibility of a better world than the one we thought he lived in, a world that may only have existed in the eyes of Mangum or people like him. His vision offers us a welcome perspective, a new way to imagine the way it was—and how we might see our way to the future.”

— Alex Harris, from his essay in Where We Find Ourselves