Captivating historical photos define ‘Black Chronicles II’ at Spelman

A fascinating show of historical portraiture, “Black Chronicles II” at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art makes you feel incredibly close to the past, as if you are breathing down history’s neck.

The exhibition is curated by Renée Mussai and Mark Sealy, the curator and director of Autograph ABP, a London foundation that highlights black cultural identity. Assembled images, many of them shot by the London Stereoscopic Company, show 19th-century black subjects — performers, soldiers, clergy, unidentified citizens and sports heroes — all alighting or residing in Victorian England. The images debunk the myth that our own modern age is the definitive melting pot.

The photographs on view in “Black Chronicles II” document an array of people. There are performers like South Africa’s African Choir, which toured England between 1891 and 1893 and sat for photo sessions to have their likenesses commemorated on glass plate negatives; Peter Jackson, a heavyweight boxer dubbed “The Black Prince”; lion tamers; dancers and Kalulu, the African boy servant to British explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

But there are images of nameless citizens, too: babies seated on plush cushions like baubles in a jewelry store window and elegant men in gold watch chains and mohair collars, as gloriously turned out as the stylish middle class in Harlem photographer James Van Der Zee’s work, but decades earlier.

Other images have a more tantalizing and mysterious bent, like the racially diverse group of friends posing together with cocky, man-spreading swagger, looking like an episode of “Entourage.” Who these people were and what these images reflect of their lives are not always clear.

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Like any portraiture, of aristocrats or kings or a family at the Sears portrait studio, the images convey a performance of self, a desire to be seen a certain way. Many convey a powerful vision of black middle-class life. Even today, images of race can be one-dimensional, but these historical images explode the notion that being black was any singular thing.

Drawn from private collections and stock photo agency Getty Images’ Hulton Archives, the images are a peek into another age of far greater complexity than we might have imagined. The images on view range from albumen prints, cabinet cards and small cartes-de-visite, which allowed for the easy exchange of portraits between friends and family. These original historic documents, yellowed with age, work their own magic, as rare relics of the past. Many of the scenarios are a kind of historical playacting, featuring traveling performers or sports heroes hocking their wares, acting out an idea to lure an audience; the movie posters of the day.

But some of the most arresting images in this exhibition are poster-sized portraits printed from original glass plate negatives that don’t just illuminate, but animate the past.

The exhibition is dedicated to the memory of British Cultural Studies co-founder Stuart Hall, who died in 2014. A small gallery room features Dawoud Bey’s 1998 portrait of Hall and a recorded lecture in which Hall states “the archive is a conversation between the present and the past,” a canny summation of the effect of those large-scale portraits.

Those incredibly detailed images allow us to see an extraordinary amount of detail: pierced ears, the texture and sheen of skin, scars, bloodshot eyes, the unique expression — serenity or discomfort — of the sitter, that make these more-than-100-year-old images bristle with immediacy and life. It is rare to see historic photographs that don’t segregate the past as distant and irrelevant to our own day. Instead these enlarged images bridge the centuries and crackle with uncannily crisp detail. Simply by enlarging the images, they feel suddenly contemporary, and the people in them more familiar, more known.

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