Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"Photographing the Negro in the South"


Big Brother, by John H. Tarbell, 1897

Recently, I discovered the photography of John H. Tarbell, who moved to Asheville, North Carolina in the 1890s and stayed through the first years of the twentieth century.

Despite his obvious talent as a photographic artist and technician, I’ve found precious little about his background:

John Henry Tarbell was born in Groton, Massachusetts, in 1849. Neither he nor his brother Frank ever married. They were the last of their line.


John Henry Tarbell, 1849-1929

When Frank died in 1921 he left John his Phi Beta Kappa key, which you see in the photograph. When John died in 1929 there was no one left to bury him except the family's lawyer.

( Thanks to Bill Fields for the biographical information and use of the restored Tarbell portrait: http://www.underonesky.org/orphan_ancestors.html )

While in Asheville, Tarbell photographed the newly constructed Biltmore Mansion, President McKinley on an 1897 visit, and many local scenes for inclusion in tourist-oriented booklets. "A Souvenir Directory to the Land of the Sky" (1898) features Tarbell's work. A pdf is available at http://www.archive.org/details/souvenirdirector00bark







It is possible that his photo titled “Great Expectations” was taken in Asheville:



In 1904, The New England Magazine published Tarbell’s article, “My Experiences Photographing the Negro in the South.” Since so little is available on Tarbell, I am posting extensive passages from that magazine story. While Tarbell produced images we would regard as offensive stereotypes (" Stop. Thief!"), he also achieved work of sensitivity and graceful beauty. Unfortunately, the available image file for "Children of the Soil” (below) doesn’t convey just what a fine photo it is. In the article, Tarbell attempts to justify his staged portrait of a watermelon thief and explains many other photos taken in the Asheville area and the South.

One of my goals is to share fragments of our region's cultural heritage that you would not otherwise find. And I don't know of anyone else who would touch this with a ten-foot pole, which is why I must. Here are excerpts and photos from Tarbell's story in The New England Magazine:

Editor's Note:—There is probably no photographer in the country who has made such a success in photographing the Southern negro in his home surroundings as has Mr. Tarbell. His artistic taste shows itself in his clever selection and posing of subjects, while the results give an admirably correct portraiture of life as it actually exists among these people, so interesting in their quaint and homely ways.

DURING a period of nearly seven years spent in the Southern States and elsewhere, but principally in that region known as the Asheville Plateau, North Carolina, I became photographically interested in the characteristics of the negroes, and made a specialty of portraying them in their various occupations as well as in endeavoring to represent pictorially the humorous aspect of their nature. It is my intention in the following article to give some of my personal experiences in that direction, though my endeavor must, necessarily, be fragmentary, covering, as it does, several years’ residence in the South.

My greatest difficulty has always been to persuade the colored people to be photographed in their picturesque, every-day costumes, and it has always required the greatest tact to convince them that it was not from a desire to ridicule any peculiarities of the race; but their suspicions are easily aroused and only by the most persuasive eloquence has it been possible, in many cases, to overcome their native distrust.

In this respect, however, the negro does not differ materially from some of his white neighbors of the poorer class, and being to a large extent imitative, he tries to copy the habits and dress of the white people especially on those occasions when he is desired for photographic purposes. Perhaps it is safe to say that the average negro does not differ essentially from his white neighbors, some being obliging, friendly and intelligent, while others are sullen, suspicious and ignorant.

Possibly it may not be generally known that the colored people are difficult to please in the matter of portraiture, that is to say, when taking a portrait solely to satisfy the individual, and not making any effort to please one's personal fancy. As a rule, they think the photograph looks “too dark,"—consequently great care has to be exercised to make as light a print as possible,—the mouth, too, is a source of annoyance (perhaps my white reader has experienced similar difficulty), while the nose is also an offending member. In fact, the greatest skill of the retoucher's art is often required in smoothing out coarse features, shortening objectionable mouths and in making a flat nose more aquiline.

It has been said that the negro is imitative; this is often seen in the little pleasantries vouchsafed to the photographer, both before and after sitting for a portrait, stale witticisms and obsolete jokes, which must be received pleasantly and with an approving grin, although the same man's chatter may have been heard for the five-hundredth time. Fortunately for me, it was seldom that I attempted to produce anything that would prove satisfactory to the ladies of color themselves, my preferences being for the "old-time mammies," now so rapidly passing away, but strange to say it was often with the greatest difficulty that I could persuade them to pose for me in the attitude which seemed to me the most characteristic, especially if it was for the purpose of depicting any occupation or any menial attitude. The request for such a pose usually aroused suspicion, and it was at once inferred that they were being "guyed."

During one of my rambles for subjects, I chanced to see a picturesque old negress sitting on the porch of her cabin. Her head was decorated with a gaily colored handkerchief. The other garments were worn but charmingly effective and appealed strongly to my sense of the artistic value of such a scene. In fact, the whole scheme of color, from the vine-covered porch, with flowers of various hues interspersed, together with the striking figure of the old woman, as the centre and point of interest, impressed me as being unusually pleasing.

I approached timidly and said: "Aunty, will you allow me to take your picture on that porch? I'll pay you for your trouble."

Immediately her head went up in the air, and with a snort of indignation she replied: "No, boss, when I has my likeness took, I'se g'wine to a gallery, I is."

Neither persuasion nor entreaty was of any avail, and I was obliged to relinquish my attempt.



At another time I chanced to run across a woman in the act of washing clothing. She was standing near a huge iron kettle, under which was a fire, and she occasionally moved the clothes around with a long stick,—the water in the kettle, of course, being kept at a high temperature by the fire underneath.

I ventured to ask her to allow me to photograph her in that particular attitude, to which she demurred, but said she would be willing to stand beside the kettle and be "took." By dint of much urging, however, and the offer of money she at last overcame her repugnance, and grasping the long stick, bent over the kettle in the correct position, being photographed in the act.

It is only fair to state that while many of the negroes are averse to being photographed, there are a few to be found now and then who seem to understand the whys and wherefores of illustrative art, and who are willing to do all in their power (for a consideration) to aid the photographer in his endeavors. Some of my best models have been discovered among the more intelligent class, who entered with great zest into the spirit of the occasion, and did their utmost to represent the ideas intended to be conveyed.

A negro preacher, and it need hardly be added, an admirer of the great Lincoln, made an excellent model for a study which has been entitled, "A Page of History." The accompanying illustration represents the aged preacher, examining two portraits of the martyr President in McClure's Magazine,—the history being that written by Miss Ida M. Tarbell some years since.



The negro minister, as a rule, is uneducated, but it sometimes occurs that he possesses a most wonderful power over his hearers. One in particular is recalled at the present time: viz.. Pastor Rumley, who preached an extraordinary sermon on "De Valley ob de Dry Bones." This discourse brought him quite a reputation in his native town, and he was in the habit of repeating it at various times and with many embellishments.

Unfortunately, it was not my good fortune to hear this remarkable sermon, but I attended another of his services on a certain Sunday and witnessed the most emotional proceedings which it has ever been my lot to see. During the sermon the preacher worked himself up into a frenzy of excitement. His hearers shouted, howled and yelled unintelligible jargon, they danced and grew hysterical, while one woman, with a wild scream, suddenly rushed across the aisle of the church, almost displacing the long piping of the stove as she continued her gyrations.

Swaying backward, she flopped into the lap of one of the colored brothers, while another coolly re-adjusted the stove funnel. At this stage of the proceedings, one of the sisters approached the demonstrative member, and dragged her back to her former seat, where she remained, limp and exhausted, until the close of the service.

Soon a voice started the familiar strain of "Roll, Jordan, Roll." Immediately it was caught up and sung by the congregation with a wild freedom, pathos, and melody. After the singing, a collection was taken up, the hats being passed, and when the first round had been made the money was counted, but not considered sufficient; so the hats were passed the second time, and the collection counted as before, but again the amount was considered insufficient.

After an urgent appeal from the pastor, the hats were sent around for the third time, and the change having been carefully counted, the sum was declared enough and to spare. Another hymn was sung, the benediction given, and the audience dispersed….


Children of the Soil, JHT, 1901

The children there [in the Southern States], as a rule, are less averse to being photographed than the older people,—this seems to be the case in all sections of the country, though it frequently occurs that the least picturesque specimens are the most anxious to be "tooken." The two little waifs in the act of emerging from the hollow trunk of a tree were willing subjects, but doubtless their parents, had they been present, would have objected strongly to their being taken in any such position. Their desire, probably, would have been to have their young offspring dressed in the latest fashion, and either sitting or standing in the conventional attitude and staring at the camera—this of course to be accompanied by one of the usual horrors, a fantastically painted background.

Here, again, we see the imitative faculty of the race, for how often the fond white parents are satisfied only when their second editions are represented in frills and feathers or in stiff, starchy clothing, which must all be done in the conventional studio with a "skylight."

As has been intimated before, the colored people are very anxious to appear as light as possible in their pictures, and after I had learned this fact, it was seldom that I ventured to show any of my studies to those who had posed for me. During the earlier portion of my visit to the South, I had made the mistake of freely exhibiting my pictures to my dusky models.

I have in mind the mother of a most interesting little pickaninny, whose portrait I had taken solely to please myself, and which I afterward showed to its mother.

A look of disappointment overspread her face and she remarked with a sigh, "Oh, so dark, I don't want it."

Frequently a crowd of colored urchins have followed me long distances, earnestly requesting to be photographed, and with such remarks as, "Say, boss, draw me off, will yer?" "Say, Mister, wan't ter take me standin' on my head?" "G'wine sketchin', boss?" and the like.

It may sometimes happen that an unusually tattered but picturesque specimen in the crowd is selected, and is requested to serve as a model, but very likely he or she will obstinately refuse, while a dozen perhaps of the least desirable will spring forward, earnestly requesting to be "tooken."

Occasionally the ill-dressed urchins will shout, "You uns wants ter put my likeness in a winder and sell it, you does!"

This is a crusher, and is supposed to annihilate the aspiring and perspiring photographer.

While, as a general rule, it has been my practice to portray the negro at his best, or rather as representing him engaged in some honorable occupation, I must frankly admit that it has seemed necessary, now and then, to depict him at his worst, both to please a certain public taste, and for pecuniary reasons as well.

When this has been attempted, it has been found desirable to make a diligent search for models who had no objection to being represented in any scene I might select, provided they were well paid for their services.



In the illustration entitled "Stop. Thief!" an attempt has been made to represent the weakness that some members of the colored race have for the luscious watermelon, and the scene is supposed to portray a sneak thief in the act of escaping through a fence surrounding a yard which contains the juicy fruit.

The next scene shows the culprit after his arrival home, where he ravenously devours the stolen melons. His little brother gazes longingly but sadly at the disappearing melon, not being allowed to share a single morsel.

These records of my work would seem to be incomplete without an attempt to illustrate the negro from a sentimental point of view, and it gives me great pleasure to be able to do this.

On one of those rare spring mornings, often seen in the sunny South, there called at my studio a young negro of perhaps eighteen years of age. He was accompanied by a young colored girl of about the same age. Both were the darkest specimens of their race that I had ever seen, and gave their names as Tom and Lily.

After some little conversation, they admitted that they intended to get married in a few weeks, and wanted to know if I would take their "likenesses'' for them, "togedder, if yer please, boss."

Seeing that they were admirably adapted to picture a scene which I had often longed to portray, viz., the old, old story of love, I agreed to give them a picture if they would allow me to photograph them just as I wished, for my own especial purpose. They readily consented to this, and they were posed in the attitude of two bashful lovers,—the youth gazing rather sheepishly at his sweetheart, and she responding by a similar glance.



The result is seen in the illustration entitled, "The Wooing O't." After various poses of a similar character, several exposures were made, of a nature calculated to suit their own personal wishes, care being taken to have the resultant prints several shades lighter than the subjects appeared in nature! The results were highly pleasing to Tom and Lily; and it is perhaps needless to say that the pictures designed especially for my own satisfaction were never shown to them!

Tom and Lily were very friendly after this episode, and used to call frequently at my studio,—especially the former. On one occasion, when coming alone to borrow (?) a nickel, he frankly related to me the story of his courtship, which was substantially as follows, told in Tom's own words:

''I says to her, says I, 'Lil', I'se got right smart ob a leetle patch o' ground ober yander. an' I'se got a good many sweet 'taters, a good many beans, an' a lot o' corn, an' I reckon I'se g'wine to get married nex' fall,—an'—an'—I'll marry you if you like.'''

Lil' did not blush, but like a wise woman, she reflected,—then she replied: "Tom, you'se mighty suddent, an' I'se g'wine to study ober it for a spell."

And study over it she did.

Tom came the second time and pressed his suit.

"Now, Lil'," said he, "I specs you'se g'wine ter gib me an anser today."

But Lil' only assumed an air of reserve and simply replied, "Oh, I don't know."

Tom was in despair and went away. However, he returned to the attack for the third time, on this occasion using strategic measures to accomplish his purpose.

"Lil'," said he, "if you'se don't anser to-dav, I'se g'wine ter marry Rosie."

This vigorous action on Tom's part was entirely successful, and Lil' surrendered, only stipulating that she should be presented with a new calico dress, ''with yaller flowers on it," in time for the marriage ceremony.

A few weeks after this occurrence they were united in the holy bonds of matrimony, but I am unable to state whether their union has been a happy one, my duties having since called me to another section of the country.
.

7 comments:

James Golden said...

Very fortunate you're tried to preserve and share this bit of cultural history.

GULAHIYI said...

I appreciate that. I should note that I have a degree of discomfort with the material in this post..and a degree of discomfort with posting it. But seeing in it a very candid and revealing slice of one man's experience in this corner of the world, at one moment in time, 100+ years ago...I think it deserves to be retrieved from obscurity.

One heck of a book could be written on early photographers in the Southern Appalachians. Until that happens, I'll pass along some odds and ends on that subject.

revivalist said...

This is a great collection of photos, however slanted the perspective. Thanks for retrieving it from history's dust bin!

I actually just posted a four part series called Black in Appalachia on my blog. Check it out at http://therevivalist.info/black-in-appalachia-poontang-little/.

GULAHIYI said...

Aha, revivalist, it looks like you're in the midst of O. Winston Link territory. I was thunderstruck when I first came face-to-face with his photographs. Even knowing how he staged them, I'd say his railroad photos have grabbed me like no other photos I've ever seen.

And I love the Jimmy Strothers recording on your blog.

Anonymous said...

just saw a segment on the history channel about slave ships,etc. thank you for the article and photos. Racism still exists; amazing how history stays in the present.
yes, indeed, it is good to feel discomfort; means we are at least aware.thank you for your research and sharing....

Emma said...

What a nice story about Tom and Lily! =)

My parents actually have a copy of the "Oh I don't know" photo, dated 1897, bought in the States at that time. It has been in the family ever since. Do you think it might be of any value? I think the frame is original as well.

~ Emma in Sweden

GULAHIYI said...

Hello Emma,
I've heard that Sweden is a great place! I don't know where to start looking for a values on that photo. I do collect old postcards from that era, and have noticed that postcards with African-American themes (yes, watermelon eaters, etc.) are highly sought-after as the prices are generally much higher than the scenic cards I usually go for. Based on that, I'd say there's should be a market for that old photo.