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Smiles in black and white: An unusual photo record of the South

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A self-portrait of Hugh Mangum.
A self-portrait of Hugh Mangum from "Photos Day or Night: The Archive of Hugh Mangum," edited by Sarah Stacke with texts by Maurice Wallace and Martha Sumler, Hugh Mangum's granddaughter.
Image courtesy and copyright of Martha Sumler

Looking through Minnesota writer Sarah Stacke's book, "Photos Day or Night: The Archive of Hugh Mangum," a reader is struck by the number of people who are smiling, or even laughing.

Minnesota native Sarah Stacke
Minnesota native Sarah Stacke's book "Photos Day Or Night" explores the archive of photographer Hugh Mangum. He worked in the segregated South in the late 19th and early 20th century at the height of the Jim Crow era. His photographs capture ordinary people, and Stacke says reveal the complicated reality of their lives.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"You can really see that he brought this sense of playfulness into the studio," Stacke said. "And we don't see that in photographs from this time." 

"This time" was the 1890s through 1920, when the few people who were photographed usually looked very serious. The era covered the women's suffrage movement and World War I, Stacke said.

"The height of lynchings in the 1890s, the Jim Crow laws, the first laws limiting immigrants to the U.S. It's the end of the Indian wars in the West," she said. "And this collection really represents the trials and the tribulations of this restless and far-reaching era."

A photograph showing a chain gang by Hugh Mangum.
A photograph showing a chain gang by Hugh Mangum from "Photos Day or Night: The Archive of Hugh Mangum."
Image courtesy and copyright of Martha Sumler

Mangum was one of the few late 19th century Southern photographers who made portraits of both black and white people. He was based in Durham, and traveled around North Carolina and into Virginia with his camera.

"And he would set up his studio in tents or empty store spaces," she said. "And his visits usually ranged from about one day to three months."

Stacke said Mangum employed what was called a Penny camera. It used large glass-plate negatives. But he made special masks that exposed only a small part of the negative at a time. This allowed him to capture many small pictures on a single plate. He sold six prints for a quarter. 

"Because it made these small novelty portraits, they were accessible to people from all walks of life, and so businessmen, farmers and everyone in between was able to come to his studio," she said.

And different races. Mangum's plates have black people next to white people, perhaps in ways they would not have been seen on the street. Stacke said it's striking how the African-Americans in the photographs present themselves.

An image from “Photos Day or Night: The Archive of Hugh Mangum.”
Magnum used a technique known as a "penny plate" allowing him to make multiple photographs on one glass plate.
Image courtesy of Hugh Mangum Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

"From the beginning of photography, the black community understood how to harness the power of photography to celebrate their own identity and aspirations," she said. "And you see this across the Hugh Mangum collection."

Stacke will talk about her book at 7 p.m. Friday at the Subtext Bookstore in downtown St. Paul. The event was rescheduled from earlier this week, when it was snowed out.