Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 22, 2019
Earnestine Lovelle Jenkins Race, Representation & Photography in 19th-Century Memphis: From Slavery to Jim Crow London: Routledge, 2016. 320 pp.; 122 b/w ills. Cloth $140.25 (9781409468196)

In the past three decades, there has been a welcome increase in literature on nineteenth- and twentieth-century African American photography. While much pathbreaking scholarship has been produced, art historians have acknowledged only a fraction of black photographers active in the pre–Civil Rights era. Taking the city of Memphis as her case study, Earnestine Lovelle Jenkins contributes a much-needed and richly researched monograph to the history of African American photography.

Organized into ten chapters split between three parts, Jenkins’s book covers photographs of black Memphians from the antebellum period through the early twentieth century. Part 1, “Memphis: From Slavery to Freedom,” analyzes the scant number of photographs that depict slaves before the Civil War. While her sources are extremely limited, Jenkins is still able to engage in rich analyses of her images and the enslaved peoples pictured therein. Chapter 1 examines images of urban slavery in Memphis, a topic which, like African American professional photographers, has been receiving recent attention but greatly merits much additional scholarship. Jenkins richly describes everyday life for slaves employed in Memphis, paying particular attention to visual artifacts of the urban slave trade: marketplaces, auction posters, and runaway notices. In chapter 2, Jenkins turns her attention to a pair of tintypes that picture an enslaved woman named Catherine Hunt holding a white baby. Jenkins presents an intriguing study of this photographic genre—enslaved wet nurses and child rearers with white children—elaborating how these images visualized white familial power. Jenkins also teases out the unique position of enslaved women within urban homes, describing how they were simultaneously enmeshed within and apart from their white households. For example, Jenkins notes that Hunt’s dress fabric matches that of the white child in her lap and posits that Hunt likely made their twin garments herself.

Chapter 3 focuses on photographs and illustrations of Civil War contraband camps outside Memphis. Jenkins deepens our understanding of the pressures newly freed people faced in these camps, including gender-divided living quarters, overcrowded schoolrooms, and a dearth of work for women. All three of these under-explored topics present fascinating case studies of life in Memphis before and during the Civil War, and Jenkins situates her close readings with an abundance of historical context. Her particular attention to women’s personal and professional challenges is both engrossing and very much needed in histories of urban slavery. While Jenkins is faced with the dilemma of scarce resources from the antebellum period, her artifact analyses could benefit from more unconventional methodologies in order to escape her archive’s predominately white framework. Recent scholars working within similar or missing archives—such as Saidiya Hartman, Deborah Willis, Daina Ramey Berry, and Shawn Michelle Smith, among many others—engage in imaginative tactics that acknowledge the shortcomings of white-dominated archives while telling new stories within them. As Marisa Fuentes suggests, Jenkins might read her antebellum artifacts “against the bias grain” in order to assert the subjectivities of enslaved men and women within these white-produced archives (Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, 2016). 

Concentrating on the postbellum period, part 2, “Community Builders and the Emergence of Black Photographic Culture,” traces the growing popularity of the medium through antique tintypes, cartes de visite, and family photo albums. While chapter 4 examines tintypes of several working-class black Memphians made after the Civil War, chapter 5 focuses on one hand-painted photograph of Reverend Morris Henderson, a leading figure in Memphis’s Reconstruction period. Weaving together painted portraits of Morris, snapshots and sketches of his Beale Street Baptist Church, and contemporary photographs of his grave, Jenkins creates a vivid picture of churches’ religious, social, and political functions in the postbellum period. The author also spends ample time discussing Memphis’s networked philanthropic community, for example, using a sketch from Harper’s Weekly to discuss women’s volunteer activity in local orphan asylums. In these first five chapters, Jenkins masterfully draws a wealth of historic information from a limited number of photographic sources. However, she relies heavily on supplemental images—illustrations, advertisements, and modern photographs of Memphis—to fill in the gaps left by her understandably slim photographic archive.

Chapters 6 and 7 present case studies of two mixed-race clans—the Wright and Church families—and discusses the similar challenges they faced in the postbellum period. Jane Wright’s father was Benjamin Wright, a slaveowner from a prominent abolitionist family. In this chapter, photography itself finally takes center stage, as Jenkins traces the lives of Wright and her family through a micro-archive of elegant cartes de visite. Jenkins strongly emphasizes female viewership by examining how the Wright women participated in the rituals of exchanging “calling cards,” and also commanded control of their self-presentation in the social world of Memphis. Jenkins’s study of the Wright women presents a window into the complex lives of mixed-race women after the Civil War. Her narrative powerfully debunks myths of slavery’s benevolent paternalism by highlighting the omnipresence of mixed-race children and the lack of emancipation for “beloved” sexual partners (161). Finally, Jenkins’s scrupulous research occasionally draws our attention to inconsistencies between the slave owner’s papers—what we might call the institutional record—and the Wright women’s personal archives. Such gaps are common problems in archives of slavery, and I would encourage Jenkins to linger in these breaks and tease out how they might enrich her retelling of Memphis’s history.

Robert R. Church Sr. was the enslaved son of a white riverboat entrepreneur, and his unconventional rise to success is the focus of Chapter 7. Jenkins writes that Robert lived in “a state of quasi-freedom” (165) and apprenticed without pay through his early adulthood. Robert was working on a Mississippi River steamer, the Victoria, when Memphis was captured by the Union army on June 6, 1862. Suddenly freed, Church began working odd jobs to save enough money to open his first saloon. Jenkins tells her chosen subjects’ biographies with brilliant research and narrative vigor. She presents dynamic portraits of men and women who rose out of unfathomably difficult circumstances to become leading figures in Memphis. Jenkins juxtaposes these figures’ arduous life stories with their elegant portraits, thereby reiterating the incredible odds these men and women had overcome by the time they visited the photography studio.

Part 3, “Black Urbanites: The Politics of Photography and Self-Representation,” focuses on the practice of professional portrait photography in the late nineteenth century. These chapters center on two primary characters: the legendary Ida B. Wells and James P. Newton, the first black professional photographer in Memphis. Chapter 8 discusses studio photographs of black Memphians from the fashionable Victorian era of the mid- through late nineteenth century and seeks to contextualize these formal portraits within spaces segregated by both race and gender. Jenkins’s specific attention to black women’s concerns—urban employment, domestic labor, the pressures of fashion—presents a vivid picture of everyday life. Her attention to the “overlooked influence” (206) of black women’s periodicals is particularly engaging, and she explores how such publications “not only helped Black women find employment but also drew attention to historical and political issues that effected Black women’s lives, including rape, migration, sexual identity, urbanization, education, and consumerism” (207).

Chapter 8 culminates in a close reading of Wells’s portraits and her personal correspondence about them. Like Frederick Douglass, another journalist, educator, and activist, Wells understood the importance of circulating polished, serious images of herself. Yet Jenkins presents a welcome new angle in this well-known scholarship by examining both the public and private functions of portraits for women. For example, Wells became furious after her landlord gave her cabinet card to a suitor without her consent; Wells wrote to the young man several times to demand that he send her portrait back. Such anecdotes give insight into how photographs functioned in romantic entanglements as well as how important it was for women to control their own images.

Chapters 9 and 10 tell the story of Newton, known today as Memphis’s first black professional photographer. Newton was charged with creating flattering and sophisticated photos of Memphis’s black middle class, and Jenkins examines Newton’s prolific activity within the local black intelligentsia. In 1897, Newton exhibited photographs in the Tennessee Centennial Exposition and contributed portraits to James T. Haley’s companion book, Sparkling Gems of Race Knowledge Worth Reading. The exhibition and guide sought to articulate how much black Memphians had accomplished since emancipation and juxtaposed past scenes of slavery with current portraits of leading citizens. Jenkins explores how these local campaigns aligned with the national New Negro aesthetic, and her case study demonstrates the importance of studying this phenomena outside Harlem and Detroit.

Jenkins’s text presents a meticulously researched account of Memphis in the nineteenth century and draws our attention to many previously overlooked threads in its local history, including urban slavery, contraband camps, charitable networks, church communities, entrepreneurship, and women’s work in and outside the home. While the book covers an enormous number of themes, her strict focus on a single city during one century makes the text cohesive and manageable. Still I was left with a few questions for the author, namely on how she discovered or chose the images she includes in her text. For example, many photographs are sourced from the author’s own collection. Did she inherit or is she actively collecting these artifacts? Lately historians of African American art are forthcoming about their intervention within archives; what is Jenkins’s role within this historical project? While these topics could be fleshed out in a conclusion, these questions do not detract from the strength of Jenkins’s text. Perhaps most important of all, this book demonstrates that there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of similar unexplored archives and untold stories. Jenkins’s thorough and surprising text provides an encouraging charge for future historians in their own endeavors. 

Katherine Field
MA, Art History, University of Texas at Austin