‘There’s nothing like a photograph for reminding you about difference’, reads a quote by Professor Stuart Hall, printed large on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery. ‘There it is. It stares you ineradicably in the face’.
The images that form the ‘Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948’ exhibit this quotation adorns represent ‘difference’ in various ways for the people gathered to view them. For some, it’s primarily a temporal difference. For the most part, the images show people who are long dead. For others, it’s a racial difference – and the absence of visual representations of black individuals from this period in history is part of what The Missing Chapter, an ongoing archive research programme supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, aims to remedy.
I was in London over the weekend, and decided to pop in for a visit. I deal a bit with photographic representations of otherness in my thesis, and it’s an area of research I find particularly interesting. Travis Louie, one of the artists I’m researching, has explicitly tied his decision to reproduce the Victorian photographic motif to the ‘the immigrant experience in North America from the late 18th century through the early 20th century’, which he sees as ‘a convincing record of such things’. Himself a descendent of Chinese immigrants, Louie recalls seeing old, black-and-white photographs hanging in the homes of childhood friends, and wondering why his family had none. Quite simply, he discovered, his ancestors were too poor to afford this kind of historical capital, and so their image has since faded from memory. For Louie, this lack of retrospective representation contributes in part to present-day racism and discrimination. You can read a bit more about Travis Louie’s work here.
On the exhibition homepage, the National Portrait Gallery explains the importance of making these images visible:
These portraits of individuals of African and Asian heritage bear witness to Britain’s imperial history of empire and expansion. They highlight an important and complex black presence in Britain before 1948, a watershed moment when the Empire Windrush brought the first large group of Caribbean immigrants to Britain. Research is ongoing and new information emerges continuously.
The exhibition is smaller and less obtrusive than I expected – except for the first room, which contains the quotation by Professor Hall and a number of enlarged photographs. This room is intentionally arresting; walls painted black, instantly visible from the stairway. The images themselves also stop you in your tracks, enlarged and printed in incredibly high quality. Unless you were to read the captions (or, in some cases, to note the clothing) you would never assume they were more than 100 years old.
The images can be found in three rooms of the gallery, and in the last two rooms you have to spend a moment or two searching. Despite the added trouble, I actually found this to be a very apt choice, as it makes the photographs feel like an important, embedded part of the gallery as a whole. While the first room holds a series of enlarged portraits, the rest of the collection mainly consists of smaller photographs and cabinet cards. These, like the larger images, seem chosen to evoke a sense of connection between the viewer and the picture, and I found myself eager for more information about these people, beyond the brief descriptions offered alongside the photographs.
Too often in historical representation, perhaps especially in Victorian representations, we get only one, very narrow perspective on the past. Now, certain movements and moments – neo-Victorianism, postcolonial steampunk, this exhibition – are confronting us with the narrowness of out experience. The result, in my opinion, is extremely rewarding.
‘Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862-1948’ will continue to run until 11 December 2016, and I highly recommend it – not least because it’s completely free. There will also be a one-day conference on 21 October, which will mark the end of the project’s three-year funding.