Hugh Mangum’s portraits reveal his subjects’ array of emotions and defy stereotypical snapshots
Hugh Mangum’s subjects appear somewhat stilted at first glance, their natural energy undercut by the anesthetizing gaze of the camera lens. But as the frames progress, the photographs lose the statuesque quality common amongst early studio portraits of unsmiling men and women, instead capturing moments of joy, surprise and, most impressively, spontaneous fun.
It’s this singular quality that drew photojournalist Sarah Stacke’s attention when she first flipped through a set of Mangum’s snapshots in 2010. As Stacke recounts for NPR, the “smiles and laughter,” “quirky gestures” and general playfulness of the early 20th-century North Carolinian photographer’s portraits are unique for an era often defined by its staid formality—as are the people depicted in his photographs, which include individuals of different class, gender and race living during the height of Jim Crow.
Now, nearly 100 years after Mangum’s death in 1922, his work is finally being seen by a wider audience
Photos Day or Night: The Archive of Hugh Mangum, a new monograph edited by Stacke and curated in conjunction with the photographer’s granddaughter, Martha R. Sumler, draws on unseen images and ephemera from the family’s archive, offering an unusually vibrant portrait of both the man behind the camera and the subjects in front of it.
As the self-portraits Stacke features on the volume’s title page attest—Mangum is alternately depicted in serious thought and playful costumes accentuated by such props as a parasol—life in the early 20th-century wasn’t nearly as serious as most studio shots suggest. In fact, sometimes, it could even be downright fun.
One of Mangum’s most important tools for coaxing out subjects’ more whimsical sides was the Penny Picture camera, which Stacke notes was designed to produce multiple exposures (up to 35 separate images) on a single glass plate negative. The Penny Picture operated somewhat like a modern-day photo booth, with sitters posing for a progression of photographs, perhaps involving props or shifting facial expressions.
An itinerant photographer, Magnum traveled throughout North Carolina and southwest Virginia, photographing people from all walks of life. His extant portraits of African-American clients are especially unique: As Stacke writes for NPR, these men and women “present themselves as lighthearted, resolute and everything in between. They bring their children to the studio to be photographed, an ode to the hope they have for the lives their sons and daughters will live.”
It’s likely, Stacke argues, that many such sitters “were working publicly and privately to establish black agency, independence and community vitality.” Cementing their legacies in studio portraits—especially ones in which the South’s segregation laws seem somewhat distant, their boundaries erased by the integrated nature of Mangum’s photo-filled negatives—could have served as a key step in accomplishing this goal.