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Figure 1. [Portrait of a woman in a calico dress]. Tintype (collodion and silver image on japanned iron). Circa 1860-1870. Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Museums, and Press. Black Portrait Photograph Collection.

Despite the worn iron plate marked by dents and scratches, the yet-to-be-identified sitter’s curious and determined eyes connect with the viewer (See Figure 1). We, the contemporary viewer, do not know her name nor the context in which this photograph was made. Despite not (yet) knowing the name or history of the sitter nor the object itself, the sitter’s self-presentation showcases a curated identity through her physical embodiment of visual culture cues. How the sitter, as subject of the photograph, engages patterns or repeats distinctions particular to specific visual tradition(s) establishes an association between the sitter’s likeness and that visual tradition. The sitter’s visual embodiment of their selfhood in a portrait photograph, then, communicates a particular projection that can inform us about how the sitter may have understood her identity—or, at least, how she wanted others to interpret her identity—despite a significant lack of contextualizing information about the woman, or the tintype itself, available in the archival metadata for the photographic object. Archivists may use self-fashioning details to add what context they can; the fit and style of her clothing and accoutrements, for example, gives information about both the sitter’s personal styling as well as the larger-scale fashion trends she worked within. Similarly, the sitter’s choice in pose captures their embodiment within the photographic object. Several of the distinctions present in this Black woman’s pose suggest a conscious self-fashioning by the sitter through her repetition of visual cues associated with Black women’s intellectual tradition. Significantly, the sitter’s embodiment of Black women’s intellectual tradition through her repetition of said tradition’s visual culture cues attaches her identity more securely to identification markers of her own choosing over time. Although much of the archival identifying information has not survived intact with the object itself over the passage of time, the sitter’s choices in embodying her selfhood by repeating visual patterns preserves some identifying information by complicating the sitter’s position in time. How archivists engage and present this Black woman sitter, her tintype portrait, and her positionality within the institutional collection itself is crucial to honoring the autonomy of this Black woman sitter as a subject, rather than an object of a traditionally white institution’s gaze.

Abstracted from the sitter’s personal and perhaps familial context, this tintype is now an archival object, purchased to form part of the Black Portrait Photography Collection held by the University of Delaware’s Special Collections. As an archival object, the lack of known information about this portrait—and, by direct extension, the sitter herself—challenges the institutional, and typically Eurocentric, cataloguing system. The emphasis here is upon the lack of institutional knowledge about the archival object. This portrait has been plucked from its original context and landed in the archive of the University of Delaware, where institutional lack of information translates to archival data fields left empty. This, to some degree, is part of the accession and cataloguing process, as personal or familial objects rarely require such descriptive detailing in their original context. Though leaving these fields blank is not necessarily negative in itself, it is so commonplace with archival objects of Black origin or content that many consider it to be characteristic of Black archives. This is especially true for Black archives operating within white institutions and industry standards. Indeed, the focus upon whiteness in historical archive systems has resulted in the repeated failure of said systems to recognize and make space for Blackness, as well as the field’s lack of diversity broadly.[1] Attending to these curatorial matters carries complex ramifications. In seeking to add context where it has been stripped away, curators also risk altering the experience of the twenty-first century viewer and the archival object, the interaction and resultant relationship of the viewer and the sitter. Despite these dangers, it is necessary to foreground Black subjects, histories, and archival objects, especially in the context of historically privileged white archival counterparts, and doing so requires additional care and responsibility on the part of all curators and archivists.

Curators and archivists carry a specific responsibility to demonstrate care for archival subjects, particularly when historical knowledge systems have privileged and centered white Eurocentric content. Care is meant here to mean engaging with the archival object in a manner that simultaneously preserves the integrity and legacy of the object, seeks out information about the object and sitter that has been lost through curatorial-community relationships, and refrains from over-determining the relationship between the archival object and viewer. Though these actions do not solve the many discrepancies of authority and agency within the archive and its processes, they may provide an atmosphere in which these conversations may continue.

Certain features of this particular portrait reveal standard practices of tintype portrait processing. Like the yet-to-be-identified sitter’s clothing, details of the tintype trade can be identified and used to contextualize archival objects. The plain background and posing chair suggest a photography studio, a place wherein folks could have their image created at a low price. This affordability granted access to photographic memorabilia that was previously available only to wealthier consumers. Chairs like the one pictured here were popular props for portrait studios, as they allowed sitters to comfortably maintain their posture while being photographed (see Figure 1). The cloth hanging in the background is likely a white cotton canvas hung in the studio as a backdrop; the slight bumps across the top line of the slightly-slanted canvas indicate the possible hanging fixtures used to suspend it (see Figure 1). The use of this simple canvas, rather than one with a painted landscape, might suggest an itinerant photography studio. Set up wherever crowds gathered, traveling photographers utilized the medium’s minimal equipment, processing time, and cost in their mobile studios.[2] The information offered by these details is significant, but it tends to center the portrait—that is to say, the object—rather than the subject, the yet-to-be-identified sitter, herself.

While these features of tintype photography aid in contextualizing this portrait, the sitter in this image maintains a more direct agency in what her presentation of herself, her identity, communicates through her distinguished pose. Excepting a few props and styling differences, the sitter holds a very similar pose to the famous frontispiece—engraving at the front of a text—of Phillis Wheatley in her first collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in England in 1773 (See Figure 2). Both women are seated, their chin resting on a palm with only the pointer finger visibly outstretched, with their other hand resting on the same surface as their elbow in front of them. Both women seem to be lost in thought, their focus appearing both far off and introspective. As the first known published woman of African descent, the portrait used as the frontispiece on Wheatley’s first published volume is incredibly significant piece of literary history. The publication of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is one of the largest and first milestones of what would develop into Black women’s intellectual and literary traditions, with the portrait of Phillis Wheatley becoming a visual symbol of both. The yet-to-be-identified sitter attaches herself to this tradition and Wheatley’s visual symbolism through her particular placement of her body.

Figure 2. Frontispiece of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phyllis Wheatley, published in 1773. Picture courtesy of University of Delaware Special Collections.

Despite noticeable variances in the images themselves, it is the posture of both Wheatley and the yet-to-be-identified sitter that communicate a shared embodiment. Most significantly, perhaps, is that Wheatley’s frontispiece is not a photograph but an engraving largely attributed to Scipio Moorhead, a Black artist whose other artworks have not survived.[3] Wheatley’s frontispiece incorporates more props, including a table, a bound book, an inkwell, some sheets of paper, a quill pen, and the chair she sits upon. These visual tools signal Wheatley’s self-possession, literacy, and gentility to the viewer.[4] Indeed, for Wheatley, the presence of these literary tools work as an authentication of her identity as poet. Some of these materials draw attention to the similarities between the tintype and Wheatley’s portrait; the quill pen, for instance, underscores the position of the not-yet-identified sitter’s hand posing as if it were holding a pen as well. Without the physical indicators of education or literacy, the not-yet-identified sitter relies much more heavily upon posing her own body than interacting with symbols. The tintype sitter, significantly, relies upon mimicking Wheatley’s posture—rather than the materials of literacy themselves, which Wheatley must rely upon in her own portrait—to portray her own gentility. As such, the sitter ensconces herself in specific Black women’s literary and intellectual tradition the moment she takes the visual cues upon her body; the capture of her pose in this tintype portrait has made it true.

Figure 3. Picture courtesy of University of Delaware Special Collections.

The yet-to-be-identified sitter fashions her identity in this portrait by means of performative embodiment, one that appears deeply informed by Black women’s literary and intellectual traditions. Her replication of Wheatley’s pose creates a connection between the eighteenth-century poet and the Black woman sitter. Although we cannot be sure of the sitter’s intent upon taking her pose, its effect of establishing a visual connection to the frontispiece of Wheatley remains. This connection also suggests a visual culture that centers and documents Black women’s networks of information and community. The yet-to-be-identified sitter’s alignment with Black women intellectuals also works to remove her likeness from more dehumanizing visual culture discourses in the second half of the nineteenth century, such as racist caricatures that could be seen across popular culture. By posing her body in a similar manner to the visual legacy of the first published Black woman writer, the sitter of this photograph takes on the lineage of Black women intellectuals while simultaneously dispelling the racist caricatures prevalent in late nineteenth-century print culture and beyond.

We can’t know if the sitter thought about the enduring legacies of visual culture and Black women as she was taking her photograph. Indeed, the material of the tintype itself projects itself into the future; though it might acquire scratches or dents, the iron-backed object persists against the wear of time that other mediums, such as the nineteenth-century alternative of albumen print photographs, are not nearly so resistant to. How the yet-to-be-identified sitter in [Portrait of a woman in a calico dress] presents herself is a statement about her identity at the time of the processing and also sets forth a chain of representations of herself into the future. As the tintype travels forward in time and further from the moment of capture with the sitter, the object’s associated narratives multiply, particularly if contextualizing details of the object aren’t well preserved. That is, the tintype utilizes the power of the photographic medium to capture the sitter’s momentary performative posture and send it into the future, towards a multiplicity of undefined possibilities.[5] As such, it is up to the caretakers of this portrait to maintain and protect these possibilities, as they constitute her continued agency.

Darby Witek, The Baltimore Collection: The Black Portrait Photograph Collection, June 2021.

[1] For more on the failure of institutions to recognize Blackness in their archival methods, see Helton, Laura E. “On Decimals, Catalogs, and Racial Imaginaries of Reading,” PMLA/Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 134(1), 99-120.
[2] Kristi Finefield, “Anything to Get the Shot: Itinerant Photographers.” Picture This:  Library of Congress Prints & Photos. Library of Congress, April 7, 2016.
[3] “Phyllis Wheatley.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
[4] Marcia R. Pointon Slavery and the Possibilities of Portraiture. in Slave Portraiture in the Atlantic World. Agnes Lugo-Ortiz, Angela Rosenthal, 2013, pp. 41-69, esp. 55-59.
[5] Shawn Michelle Smith, “Unredeemed Realities: Augustus Washington.” In Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity, eds. Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith. Duke University Press, 2012. p106.

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