The History of America is “More Than a Picture”

Photograph by: James H. Karales Printed by: Rick Rhodes Photography & Imaging, LLC Subject of: Lewis “Big June” Marshall. Lewis “Big June” Marshall Carrying the U.S. Flag, Selma to Montgomery. March, March 21, 1965 (detail). H x W: 3356pixels × 4200pixels (3356pixels × 4200pixels). Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Monica Karales and the Estate of James Karales © Estate of James Karales.

A photograph is more than a picture—far more than mere art. Photography bears witness to an event as it unfolds, creating a document of the moment that becomes part of the historical record. It is equal parts memory and evidence. In many cases it is proof, as in the new standard bearer: “Pics or it didn’t happen.” In this way, the photograph can transform our understanding of life by speaking in all languages at the same time without ever saying a word.

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Photography radically democratized the act of representation. Once the provenance of the wealthy elite and the power structure, the photograph liberated the picture plane from those who used it to support highly biased histories, mythologies, and narratives. Art in the age of mechanical reproduction enabled the image to be created at a much lower cost, be duplicated en masse, and distributed widely. It put the power of picture making in more people’s hands, and once freed from the strictures of the academy, the discipline flourished.

Photograph by: Walter Iooss Jr. Subject of: Michael Jordan, Red Green & Black, Chicago 1988. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, Gift of Walter Iooss © Walter Iooss .

Legendary social reformer, orator, writer, and statesman Frederick Douglass understood this, and adopted the new medium with a quickness. With 160 portraits made, Douglass became the most photographed man of the entire nineteenth century, showing the world of autonomy and self-determination.

Douglass is but one of the many luminaries now on view in More Than a Picture: Selections from the Photography Collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. The exhibition features over 150 works drawn from the museum’s collection of more than 25,000 photographs, spanning the past two centuries.

The works selected follow the history of the United States as it transforms from a nation built on slavery to the struggles for liberation from an oppressive regime that has used apartheid, unconstitutional law, and systemic bias to exploit and destroy its own. The glory of the exhibition is in the way it balances the struggles and triumphs of life for African Americans over the past two centuries.

The exhibition features works by Crave faves Devin Allen, Ming Smith, Pirkle Jones, Anthony Barboza, and Louis H., Draper, as well as the Dr. Ernest C. Withers, Roderick Terry, Camilo Vergara, James Karales, and Wayne Miller, among many others. It also features historic photographs by artists unknown, made in photography studios when subjects were required to hold a pose.

How far we have come from then to now—at least in terms of the technology that allows Devin Allen to craft his historic photograph of police chasing a single protester during the 2015 Baltimore Uprising in the wake of the murder of Freddie Gray. This image, which made the cover of Time magazine, reminds us that the more things change, the more they remains the same, as the injustices that have plagued this country since its inception continue unabated to this very day.

Perhaps this is why a photograph proves itself to be More Than a Picture—as monumental as the works are in terms of aesthetics and scope, they are not simply objects of visual contemplation but facts and proof of deep and powerful truths that must be recognized if we are to live up to the ideals espoused by the Declaration of Independence.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.