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QUESTION: Why are the pho­tographs orga­nized in this way?
ANSWER: Behind this ques­tion is an obser­va­tion: the pho­tographs in the Mir­ror of Race web­site exhi­bi­tion do not seem to be orga­nized at all!
This is pre­cise­ly the point. One of the goals of the Mir­ror of Race project is to encour­age view­ers to reex­am­ine how they see oth­ers and them­selves. The prej­u­dices of our see­ing deserve explo­ration and reflec­tion because the cat­e­gories of race, to which we have become so accus­tomed, fre­quent­ly pre­de­ter­mine how we per­ceive oth­er peo­ple — and even our­selves. In the Unit­ed States, we have inher­it­ed cat­e­gories that tend to make us cat­e­go­rize peo­ple by race on the basis of appear­ance.

The Mir­ror of Race project seeks to explore and reflect upon these cat­e­gories that we employ almost auto­mat­i­cal­ly in our dai­ly lives. For this very rea­son, the images in the exhi­bi­tion are not cat­e­go­rized by race, because to do so would already be to pre­de­ter­mine the viewer’s expe­ri­ence and to reassert the very his­tor­i­cal cat­e­gories we seek to exam­ine.

By avoid­ing pre-pro­grammed cat­e­go­riza­tion, each view­er will be freer to think about how he or she engages with each image on its own terms. In this way, we hope that view­ers can reflect upon the pre­con­cep­tions that they bring with them to their see­ing, and by doing so, exam­ine whether these cat­e­gories are ade­quate to what we do see, both his­tor­i­cal­ly and in our own expe­ri­ences.

Q: Who could afford to have their pic­ture tak­en back then? Was it only for the rich?
A: In the first few years after pho­tog­ra­phy was first intro­duced in the Unit­ed States, in 1839, por­traits were quite expen­sive. In the ear­ly 1840s, a com­plet­ed image might cost as much as $8. When you con­sid­er that a skilled work­er then could earn about $1 a day, that would have been more than a week’s wages for an aver­age per­son, or about $700 in today’s terms. But because pho­tog­ra­phy became very pop­u­lar in the US, and many peo­ple took up the trade and began com­pet­ing for cus­tomers, the prices fell dra­mat­i­cal­ly. By 1850, pop­u­lar gal­leries in major cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadel­phia turned out hun­dreds of por­traits each day and employed numer­ous oper­a­tors and labor­ers to pre­pare and fin­ish the images — which could cost as lit­tle as 25 cents each, about a few hours’ wages for a work­er. By the time of the Civ­il War in 1861, pho­tog­ra­phers were using cam­eras with mul­ti­ple lens­es that could make many images of the same sit­ter at once. These small tin­type por­traits could be had for as lit­tle as 5 cents each. It had tru­ly become a demo­c­ra­t­ic medi­um, acces­si­ble to any­one and every­one.

Q: Could only white men be pro­fes­sion­al pho­tog­ra­phers dur­ing this ear­ly peri­od?
A: Not at all. There were sev­er­al promi­nent African-Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­phers; most famous among them were James Pres­ley Ball of Cincin­nati, Ohio, and Augus­tus Wash­ing­ton of Hart­ford, Con­necti­cut. These pho­tog­ra­phers had clients of all races. Women also worked as pho­tog­ra­phers, and some ran their own stu­dios, though much less is known about them in this era.

Q: Why don’t peo­ple smile in these por­traits?
A: Por­trait pho­tog­ra­phy in the ear­ly peri­od took its bear­ings from the con­ven­tions of por­trait paint­ing, which pre­ced­ed it by hun­dreds of years. To have one’s por­trait paint­ed was a very seri­ous mat­ter, and it cost a great deal of mon­ey, so peo­ple would present them­selves in the way they would most want to be remem­bered. This was true in ear­ly pho­tog­ra­phy as well; sit­ters would usu­al­ly wear their best clothes, and they might come to pose with prized pos­ses­sions or tools of their trade. To smile might dis­play a lack of seri­ous­ness that most peo­ple at that time would not want to con­vey in a por­trait that they expect­ed to depict their char­ac­ter down through the ages. Ear­ly pho­tographs of peo­ple smil­ing, grin­ning, or even just being sil­ly do exist, but they are rare. In fact, the idea that smil­ing for a pho­to­graph is the prop­er way to make a por­trait is a rel­a­tive­ly recent devel­op­ment, start­ing after World War Two.