Seeing a well-dressed group of Black men, like the group in the top left photograph, isn’t foreign to me. My dad’s side of the family is about 80% men and 20% women. But what is foreign to me is Black joy in photography, especially Black men. As I grew up and started looking through photo albums, I began to realize that in every image of my dad, he held a tight closed-lipped expression, no matter the occasion. Every ID card, every family photograph, every photo captured him with the same tight closed-lipped expression, much like the expression of the man in the top right photograph, Portrait of a seated man wearing a felt hat. I had to beg my dad to smile in my prom pictures and even then, I only got a smile that lasted for one photo.
Perhaps what drew me into the tintype with the group portrait was the amount of deterioration. Though the image is a bit hard to make out due to the deterioration, two facial expressions can be seen clearly in one man that is standing and another that is seated. The standing man on the left side of the photo holds a straight face, but the seated man on the left side of the photograph holds a soft smirk that many won’t want to miss.
A smirk: Such a soft and subtle way to show enjoyment. This smirk speaks to me more than anything else in this photograph. There isn’t enough information to suggest whether this group of men were family, friends, or even coworkers. But the smirk on the face of the seated Black man suggests that this man was happy to be there, posing for an image, fashioning himself, being able to show himself and his counterparts in a positive perspective.
When I look at this photograph, joy and curiosity fills me up. I’m not used to seeing Black joy in images, especially not images dating back decades ago. I want to know the reason behind his choice of happiness. Why did the other men choose a relaxed straight face? Are they coworkers or friends? So many unanswered questions; but what can be seen by viewing the image is the happiness shown on the seated Black man.
Black joy in photographs of men is important– for me, it’s a rare find. This man’s smirk now represents the photograph as a whole, a joyful experience. I had grown up around a happy dad, a family man whose laughter always fills up the room and absolutely loves hanging out with his cousins. But this was never reflected in photos. This speaks for the rest of the men in the group that held straight faces and the man in the felt hat: perhaps it’s not that they were not happy, but that they wanted to style themselves in a serious manner. But just know that by posing with those sly smirks or those toothy grins, there will always be Black youth that will feel the same joy as I do when I first saw the smirk of a Black man in Portrait of the four men, two seated, two standing.
Daniella Statia, May 2021, Black Portrait Collection