Photography stands at the crossroads of history and memory. Throughout the semester in “Curating Hidden Collections & The Black Archive” we’ve tried to come to terms with the varied ways we can interpret and present information on people we’ve never met and have no connection to. Tasked with creating data for the portraits of Black sitters within the ‘Black Portrait Photograph Collection’ we were given an opportunity to unlock the perceived history of those featured, possibly giving them a renewed life in our future. Our work with these archival materials has been aimed to further the history and legacy of Black subjects in the field. We’ve spent countless hours reading and implementing archival practices into our work, dedicated hours to research, and collaborated with one another to create metadata that will give a more well-rounded image of the collection’s subjects.
But for months I’ve internally struggled with how I feel about the work we’ve actually done.
As scholars we tend to view and use these photographs as accurate reflections of the past. But where is the memory of these sitters being stored? How accurate can I actually be? Is the amount of information I’ve found about these sitters enough? Why should my interpretation of their lives be the one that goes on to define them? To be honest, I haven’t really been able to answer these questions fully. It’s been an uphill battle to even find out the actual identity of the subjects featured in the collection. In the case of portraits like that of ‘Portrait of a standing woman, possibly Ellen Hopsons,’ so much genealogical and geographical research was done to barely provide a sense of individuality for the subject. We possibly know her area of residence, family, and actual name. But what weight does “possibly” hold? How do we as scholars go about approaching this history with a certain amount of uncertainty? The only way I’ve been able to confront this sense of worry of the lost stories and actual memories of the sitters is to rethink how I am viewing and interpreting their visual identity. This was the key to being proud of the work I’ve done.
I’ve used scholar Leigh Raiford’s concept of ‘critical Black memory,’ a mode of historical interpretation and political critique that frames and mobilizes Black identities, as a way to interpret these photographs differently. As a class we’ve thoroughly discussed the inherit bias towards whiteness that institutions and their archives are framed through. The history of institutional archives has utilized the white lens as the standard; language, descriptions, and categorization are centered around it. The concept of ‘critical Black memory’ then would be used to actively change how we think about the history and narratives of varied communities, as well as how we can go on to allow them to be accurately represented in archival spaces. With this concept I’ve been able to empathetically picture these figures as they existed back in the 19th century while placing them in a contemporary context relevant to us today. My information on ‘Portrait of a standing woman, possibly Ellen Hopsons’ didn’t have to be perfect as long as I empathized with and understood some of the societal hardships she faced. I’ve connected to her stories, her struggles, and her representation. Her existence mattered back then. It still matters now.
While we’ll never be able to know the full scope of the lives featured in the ‘Black Portrait Photograph Collection’ we can still understand parts of their collective memory. While a majority of the research associated with the possible identities of the subjects will be omitted from their final descriptions online, we will still be left with the knowledge that we tried our best in granting them some sort of agency. These subjects could now have a renewed meaningful life. And honestly- that is the best we can ask for.
Figure 1. Portrait of a standing woman, possibly Ellen Hopsons. ca. 1890-1910. Albumen Print on Paper Mount. Image courtesy of University of Delaware Special Collections.
 Leigh Raiford, “Photography and the Practices of Critical Black Memory,” History and Theory 48, no. 4 (2009): 119.
 Leigh Raiford, “Photography and the Practices of Critical Black Memory,” History and Theory 48, no. 4 (2009): 118.