Photograph of three women sitting next to each other wearing old fashioned clothing. Photograph of three women sitting next to each other wearing old fashioned clothing.

Pictures with Purpose

A Symposium on Early African American Photography

“Pictures with Purpose,” convened curators, scholars and visual culture experts to discuss the power of African American images and image-makers from 1840s – 1920s. The one-day symposium on March 29, 2019, offered a window into how black American used photography as an influential tool for shaping, sharing and preserving their images and history when it arrived in the United States in 1839. The sessions they explored how African Americans wielded the technology to claim and shape their identities, as well as to document their everyday lives during slavery and the decades following Emancipation.

Program 

Welcome

  • Kinshasha Holman Conwill, Deputy Director, NMAAHC

Pictures with Purpose

  • Rhea L. Combs, Supervisory Museum Curator of Photography & Film and Director of CAAMA, NMAAHC
  • Laura Coyle, Head of Cataloging and Digitization, NMAAHC
  • Michèle Gates Moresi, Supervisory Museum Curator of Collections, NMAAHC
The Double Exposure series editors and contributors to Pictures with Purpose: Early Photographs from the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Laura Coyle and Michèle Gates Moresi presented on the book and discussed the larger ideas behind the publication and the series. Rhea L. Combs moderated the panel.
 

Examining Early Vernacular Photography

  • Emilie C. Boone, Assistant Professor of Art History in the African American Studies Department, CUNY New York City College of Technology
  • Brian Wallis, Curator, The Walther Collection, New York/Neu-Ulm
  • Deborah Willis, Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging, New York University Tisch School of the Arts  
Brian Wallis engaged in a discussion with Deborah Willis about documenting everyday life through early vernacular photography. They discussed how images of regular people and everyday events help us look at the past in new ways. Emilie C. Boone served as moderator.
 

Understanding Preservation

  • Alisha Chipman, Senior Photograph Conservator, The Library of Congress
  • Jennifer Evers, Senior Book Conservator, The Library of Congress
  • Doug Remley, Rights and Reproduction Specialist, NMAAHC
  • Maggie Wessling, Conservator of Photographs, NMAAHC
  • Helena Zinkham, Chief of the Prints & Photographs Division, The Library of Congress
Representatives from NMAAHC and The Library of Congress presented on the importance of the partnership between the two institutions that facilitated the acquisition and preservation of the Emily Howland photo album, which contains the oldest known image of Harriet Tubman. Doug Remley, Maggie Wessling, and The Library of Congress’ Alisha Chipman and Jennifer Evers presented on the practical elements of this partnership and the significance of preserving and digitizing nineteenth century images, using the Howland album as a case study. Helena Zinkham moderated the panel and posed questions for the participants.
 

Examining Identity through Nineteenth Century Imagery

  • Jasmine Nichole Cobb, Associate Professor of African and African American Studies and Art History and Visual Studies, Duke University
  • Amy M. Mooney, Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture, Columbia College Chicago
  • Maurice Wallace, Associate Professor of English, University of Virginia
Amy M. Mooney and Maurice Wallace discussed claiming identity through early photography. Their conversation explored photography’s power as a medium and how it facilitated expanding modes of representation to broader audiences in the nineteenth century. Additionally, the discussion considered the impact and effect of photography—how it shaped subjects’ identities, as well as people’s understanding of the subjects’ identities. Jasmine Nichole Cobb moderated the discussion.

Photograph of almost all symposia participants

(L to R): Maurice Wallace, Alisha Chipman, Helena Zinkham, Jennifer Evers, Laura Coyle, Michèle Gates Moresi, Deborah Willis, Doug Remley, Amy M. Mooney, Brian Wallis, Rhea L. Combs, Jacquelyn Days Serwer, and Jasmine Nichole Cobb. 

Recorded Panels

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Morning Panels

This recording contains the “Welcome,” “Pictures with Purpose” session, and the first half of the “Examining Early Vernacular Photography” session.
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Examining Early Vernacular Photography Continued

This recording contains the second half of the “Examining Early Vernacular Photography” session.
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Afternoon Panels

This recording contains the “Understanding Preservation” session and the “Examining Identity Through Nineteenth Century Photography” session.

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, as well as the display of the Emily Howland album containing a previously unknown portrait of abolitionist Harriet Tubman. The symposium was made possible with generous support from the Phillip and Edith Leonian Foundation.