The Hampton Book

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For the past few years, on and off I have been looking at some photographs that intrigued me ever since I first saw them. If you know what to look for, they are easy to find online: The photographs Frances Benjamin Johnston took at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute are contained in the Library of Congress (LOC; here).

Even as there are a number of really interesting details (I will get to them below), up until recently my interest has solely focused on the photographs themselves. There’s something very intriguing about the work — or rather about some of it (more on that below as well).  It’s best to simply look at an example.

Let’s first ignore everything we could learn from the LOC and simply look. You have a photograph of six individuals, and it would appear that they’re all African American. They’re engaged in what looks like the construction of a staircase, in particular the building of the protective railing around it. You would imagine that such an endeavour would result in a lot of motion and visual and literal mess. But no, everything looks perfectly still, and everything looks very carefully composed.

If you have a good sense for photographic composition, you will immediately see how well this photographs is done. There are so many small details that someone not paying attention might have screwed up. Here, everything is in just the right place.

The photograph reminds me of modernist socialist imagery: imagery of workers. In fact, you can find the same echoes in many of Lewis Hyne’s photographs of the construction of the Empire State Building or in the famous picture of a power-house mechanic: the staging combined with the apparent physical energy soon to be released by the human form is one of the hallmark signs of this kind of imagery.

And note that such photography was produced in the capitalist and in the socialist worlds, the difference being the ways they were interpreted: under capitalism, the photographs were seen as showing the awesome power of progress and capitalism. In the Soviet Union, the photographs were seen as showing the power or workers.

But that can’t be the case in the Hampton case, because the people in this particular photograph look as if they had existed before photographic modernism came about. Indeed, the records say that this is the reproduction of a platinum print, and the photographs were taken around 1899-1900.

At this stage, I might as well acknowledge that you might not see the connection to modernist socialist art (which would eventually be known as socialist realism). What I’m mostly responding to is the very constructed nature of the imagery. What you see does not feel quite real: it’s almost too idealized. But there also the aspect of labour in the service of a larger good. They’re working towards something else.

Given that I previously wrote about Photography’s Neoliberal Realism, my reaction might not surprise you. In that essay, I argued that sections of contemporary photography have become indistinguishable from propaganda for the neoliberal economical system we live in.

In much the same fashion, I see Frances Benjamin Johnston’s photographs as a form of propaganda. That’s not a very original take, and I will get to that a little bit later.

A little while ago, I decided that I should have a collection of the photographs in my library, assuming that it existed in book form. As it turned out, a few years ago (in 2019) MoMA has published exactly such a book: The Hampton Album.

As it turns out, there appear to be multiple copies of these sets of photographs. MoMA acquired their copy through Lincoln Kirstein who apparently found it in some bookshop in Washington, DC during World War 2. Roughly twenty years later, he donated it to MoMA, which resulted in some research into it and an exhibition in 1966. There’s an essay in the 2019 book by Sarah Hermanson Meister that will tell you all about it.

Now that I have a copy of the book — essentially a reproduction of the object that lies somewhere in MoMA’s vaults, I will deviate from the rest of the world of photography. This is not an album. It’s a fully realised photobook.

Obviously, we could have a long discussion about albums and photobooks, if we had too much time on our hands and didn’t mind the ensuing tedium. There are reasons why I want to consider this book as what it is. First, if Anna Atkins’ very early work constitutes a photobook (and not an album), then there’s no reason why we should treat this book differently.

Second, the fact that the prints were tipped in is irrelevant. The book was produced at a time when the mass production of photographs was not remotely possible in the way it is now. Furthermore, whether photographs are tipped in or whether they’re printed directly onto the paper is not a very good way to distinguish a photobook from an album. If we did that, Rafal Milach‘s The Winners would not be a photobook, which would be an absurd statement to make.

Most importantly, though, as is very clear from The Hampton Album, what we have is a very carefully considered book that follows all the rules of photobook making. Even if we have no direct access to its maker(s) intent, through its very considered nature, it’s absolutely clear that they had a book with a very clear message in mind. And that’s the most important reason to consider it as a photobook — and not as an album.

Johnston’s photographs had been commissioned by the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute to showcase the institution’s efforts to provide education for African American and Native American students.

Old habits die hard, though. The book opens with what today reads as some incredibly crude juxtapositions of “before” and “after”: life without Hampton input and life with. For example, one spread shows a Native American woman and her child in what might have been traditional dress (“Without Education”) standing somewhere in the open opposed to a family of four dressed following Western bourgeois standards in a photo studio (“With Education”).

Equally striking are the differences in names used in those spreads. You might have two Native American women. One is Cracking Wing, shown “On arrival at Hampton” opposite of Adele Zinney (I’m having trouble reading the handwritten title, I might have misread the last name and some of the following text), “A girl whose every physical measurement is artistically correct” (which implies that Cracking Wing’s is not).

“The message is clear,” wrote Richard B. Woodward, “Hampton is bringing civilization to people who have not enjoyed it until now, and those people ignore its philanthropy at their peril.”

“The main group of photographs in the album, though,” he continues, “don’t have this scolding tone, even if the intent remains didactic.” This sentiment is mirrored in some of the other writing around the book I’ve seen: well, there is the blatant propaganda in the beginning, but the rest is better.

Well, yes and no. The propaganda isn’t quite so blatant later on, but to insist that it is less scolding in tone… I don’t see it that way. It’s just done differently.

As Meister notes in her essay, Hampton University was not particularly pleased when in 2000, Carrie Mae Weems’ The Hampton Project used the photographs to address some of the issues of the work to speak of the larger complexities and, in particular, on the function the students were given then and now. “Weems,” Meister writes, “employed a strategy that complicated — or indeed, rendered impossible — any singular understanding of Johnston’s work.”

This brings me back to my original interest in the book. After all, the first photographs I saw are from what Woodward calls the main group, a large selection of photographs showing students in class or engaged in other school related activities.

What I had picked up on, after all, was merely one aspect of the photographs, namely the very carefully constructed nature of the classroom photographs (some, I might add, work better than others). It is that artifice that I had picked up on that seemed to be directed at something else, something outside of the frame and outside of the lives of the people in the frames.

It should be clear that we will have to live with the contradictions in the photographs that immediately arose from the institution at that particular point in time. The crass paternalism is very difficult to ignore.

It would be foolish to expect or think that the contradictions in the photographs do not exist: we cannot hope for the past to be better than it was, even if the people behind the project meant well. But there’s something to learn for us, both for our way of looking at and deciphering photographs. And there is a lesson for our own lives and how intent might or might not translate into a lived reality.

As I’ve hoped to make clear in the above, Frances Benjamin Johnston’s photographs from the Hampton Institute should be looked at more widely. The book — The Hampton Album — is a fully realised photobook whose edit and sequence deserves careful attention. Even as it arose from a time where the medium photobook did not play much of a role, the book is so well made that much can be learned from it.

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