Out from behind the mask : the illustrated poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and photography at Hampton Institute
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This dissertation contextualizes and interprets several hundred photographs illustrating six books of poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Although their significance as cultural landmarks is largely unrecognized today, they rank among the largest and most widely distributed bodies of photographs of African Americans in American visual culture. Published between 1899 and 1906, the images in the Dunbar books represent a counterpoint to the much-emphasized publicity photographs made concurrently for the school by Frances Benjamin Johnston, complicating simplistic conclusions about the nature of Hampton Institute and the industrial education movement. Drawing upon substantial original research on the predominantly white Hampton Institute Camera Club and its institutional context, and presenting a biographical portrait of the lead photographer, Leigh Richmond Miner, this study ultimately traces a history of photography at Hampton Institute from the 1890s through the 1920s, reproducing more than 150 unpublished and unrepublished images. This study reveals that the photographs in Dunbar’s works were created explicitly to reconceive pictorial representations of African Americans, and to subtly discredit any reductive conventional perception of racial character altogether. By depicting their subjects photographically, the members of the Hampton Camera Club sought to undermine essentialist characterizations--both derogatory and sentimental--by presenting their subjects as self-determining and multifaceted individuals. In their use of serial photography and by employing African-American creative forms, the books ultimately suggest vernacular origins of a disjunctive, Modernist aesthetic, casting both Dunbar and Hampton as proponents of modernity rather than as icons of retrogressive racial politics.