Museum News

“Pictures with Purpose” Photography Symposium Examines Early African American Images of Uplift and Dignity

April 3, 2019
The only known photograph of John Willis Menard, the first African American elected to the United States House of Representatives. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, shared with Library of Congress

Since the arrival of photography to the United States in 1839, African Americans have used it as a powerful tool for shaping, sharing and preserving their image and history. Early photographs by and about African Americans set the stage for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture’s first photography symposium, “Pictures with Purpose: A Symposium on Early African American Photography.” Held Friday, March 29, the one-day symposium featured scholars, curators and visual culture experts who examined early photographs of African Americans and explored the many ways African Americans wielded photography to claim and shape their identity, and document everyday lives during slavery and the decades that followed Emancipation.

The symposium coincided with the release of Pictures with Purpose: Early Photographs from the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the museum's seventh release in the Double Exposure series of books on photography, as well as the weeklong display of the Emily Howland album containing a previously unknown portrait of abolitionist Harriet Tubman. The one day symposium offered a window into 19th- and early 20th-century African American life and provided a platform for visual culture experts to convene and study powerful African American images and image-makers. The symposium was made possible with generous support from the Phillip and Edith Leonian Foundation and can be viewed on the museum’s ustream channel.

Deputy director Kinshasha Holman Conwill welcomed the audience, scholars, and visual culture experts who participated in four panels on photography’s role in shaping identities and documenting American history. “The symposium was a great example of the museum’s commitment to collaborating and convening around important issues,” said Conwill. “The conservation of African American photography ensures that it is available for generations to explore and enjoy. The knowledge shared and the information garnered through each presentation allowed us to see and think deeply about these early images and image-makers.”

The first panel, Pictures with Purpose, focused on the larger ideas behind the Double Exposure series and Pictures with Purpose book release. The second panel, Examining Early Vernacular Photography, explored the importance of everyday photographs that capture ordinary people in their daily lives, as well as photographs of special events and famous people in order to better understand the past. The third panel, Understanding Preservation, underscored the importance of establishing strong partnerships to conserve and save original images, while sharing the details behind the acquisition and preservation of the Emily Howland photography album. The fourth panel, Examining Identity through 19th-Century Imagery, explored the relationship between identity and the photographic medium in the 19th century and addressed portraits as reflections of pride and dignity.

Rhea Combs, film and photography curator and director of the Center for African American Media Arts (CAAMA) organized the symposium to examine the role photography played in grounding African Americans in their own truths. “The lives and stories of black people told through images is just as powerful as any written text,” said Combs. “The images presented during the “Picture with Purpose” symposium allow us to see black subjects in ways that fall counter to mainstream, stereotyped perspectives; and instead, we bear witness to the self-affirmed dignity of ordinary people—as they saw themselves.”

Pictures with Purpose Panelists

  • Laura Coyle, head of cataloging and digitization, National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • Michèle Gates Moresi, supervisory curator of collections. NMAAHC
  • Rhea L. Combs, curator of photography and film, NMAAHC (moderator)

Examining Early Vernacular Panelists

  • Deborah Willis, chair, Department of Photography & Imaging, New York Tisch School of the Arts  
  • Brian Wallis, photography historian, curator, The Walther Collection, New York/Neu-Ulm, Germany
  • Emilie C. Boone, assistant professor of art history, City University of New York, African American Studies Department (moderator)

Understanding Preservation Panelists

  • Doug Remley, rights and reproduction specialist, NMAAHC
  • Maggie Wessling, photography conservator, NMAAHC
  • Alisha Chipman, senior photography conservator, Library of Congress
  • Jennifer Evers, senior book conservator, Library of Congress
  • Helena Zinkham, chief, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress (moderator)

Examining Identity through Nineteenth Century Imagery Panelists

  • Amy M. Mooney, associate professor of art history and visual culture, Columbia College, Chicago
  • Maurice Wallace, associate professor of English, University of Virginia
  • Jasmine Nichole Cobb, associate professor, African and African American studies, art history and visual studies, Duke University, Durham, N.C. (moderator)

About the Pictures with Purpose book
Pictures with Purpose is the seventh volume of the Double Exposure book series, exploring images from the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s collection of 19th-  and early 20-century photography. The book examines African Americans’ use of photography to challenge stereotypes and shape their image within and beyond their communities. Headlined by themes such as claiming identity, persuading the public and commemorating achievement, this book allows readers to gain new perspectives on American icons, including Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, activist W.E.B. DuBois, and educator Booker T. Washington. This collection of photographs, carte-de-visite, and stereograph images encourages all Americans to remember the diversity among those who founded and built the nation and reminds readers that documentation methods have a direct effect on how history is remembered. Other titles in the series include: Through the African American Lens, Civil Rights and the Promise of Equality, African American Women, Picturing Children, Fighting for Freedom, and Everyday Beauty.

About the National Museum of African American History and Culture                   
The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened Sept. 24, 2016, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Occupying a prominent location next to the Washington Monument, the nearly 400,000-square-foot museum is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history. For more information about the museum, visit, follow @NMAAHC on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat—or call Smithsonian information at (202) 633-1000.

# # #

Media Contact(s): 

Fleur Paysour (202) 633-4761; 
Jermaine House (202) 633-9495;

Join Our Media List

Help us keep you informed of Museum news, special events, and upcoming public programs. 


Sign Up

Press Kit

Our press kit includes facts and descriptions of our building, inaugural exhibitions, collection, history, and leadership.


Download Kit

About The Museum

The National Museum of African American History and Culture will be a place where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience, what it means to their lives and how it helped us shape this nation. A place that transcends the boundaries of race and culture that divide us, and becomes a lens into a story that unites us all.