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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.