Rediscovering an American Community of Color: The Photographs of William Bullard, 1897-1917
(Worcester Art Museum, 2017)
“Negroes can never have impartial portraits at the hands of white artists,” Frederick Douglass wrote in an editorial for The Liberator nearly 170 years ago. Coming from no less than the sitter lately recognized as “the nineteenth century’s most photographed American,” the statement speaks to debates still current in representations of black experience in visual art. Deborah Willis weighed in in favor of Douglass’s claim in her introduction to the indispensable Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography (The New Press, 1994), adding that the white gaze has always focused its most brutalizing partiality on the bodies of African American women in particular—a history she has described and subverted in her anthology Black Venus 2010: They Called Her “Hottentot” (Temple University Press, 2010) and elsewhere.
Racist ideas have long been activating ingredients in the developing trays of white photographers—even those whose portraits of African American subjects have been commissioned, consensual, or do not overtly abet some discrete project of white supremacy. Carl Van Vechten, to take one minor example, thought himself so obviously the best white friend Harlem ever had that he became the kind of white friend who felt authorized to use the N-word to describe the neighborhood in the title of a 1926 novel. The emancipatory potential of photography for African Americans, as bell hooks wrote in her contribution to Picturing Us, lies in how it “enables us to construct radical identities, images of ourselves that transcend the limits of the colonizing eye”—a political process that only cameras in the hands of African Americans themselves can forward. Historical examples of white photographers who have acted as accomplices in that struggle of image-making—the John Browns of American photography—come slowly to mind.
The white authors of Rediscovering an American Community of Color: The Photographs of William Bullard, 1897-1917 have read their bell hooks and their Deborah Willis (whose praise appears on the back jacket), and found if not quite a John Brown then at least not a Van Vechten in the obscure figure of William Bullard. Studioless, Bullard travelled around the manufacturing center of Worcester, Massachusetts and its environs as an “itinerant” photographer at the beginning of the last century. His most prolific years were 1900 to 1908, when he was in his 20s and early 30s. An extended illness and depression compounded by the death of his mother appear to have led to his suicide in 1918, at age 41.
What is exceptional about the photographs Bullard left behind are the 236 surviving portraits he took of black and brown people, about 80 percent of whom can be identified thanks to the “serendipitous survival of the photographer’s logbook,” explains Janette Thomas Greenwood, a professor of history at Worcester’s Clark University. These were Bullard’s neighbors in the part of town called Beaver Brook, “a small but dynamic community of color made up of people of both African American and Native American descent, black Yankees with deep roots in Massachusetts, and a handful of migrants from the Caribbean.” Their portraits amount to only a small fraction of all the photographs Bullard ever produced, but the intervention they constitute in the historical record and the opportunity their names present “to reconstruct their individual stories as well as their local and national contexts” makes this book and the exhibit it accompanies (on display at the Worcester Art Museum through February 25, 2018) the kind of project that institutions around the country would do well to study.
Greenwood and Nancy Kathryn Burns, a curator at the Worcester Art Museum, have kept the community represented by Bullard’s subjects at the front of their inquiry. Nearly every American city of comparable size had a community of color by the turn of the century, but the demographic amalgam of Beaver Brook was unique to Worcester. Greenwood describes the particular confluence of post-Civil War migration, economics, and geography that created the neighborhood we glimpse from Bullard’s viewfinder, tracing its origins in Worcester’s status as a “tiny but historically activist community of color that had provided refuge to runaway slaves before the Civil War and fought valiantly to end slavery.” We’re not meant to just see these people as they appeared the day Bullard took their portraits, poised in their finest clothes, but to understand who they were and how they created the Worcester where they lived, which was different than the Worcester typically remembered. Far from fulfilling such an uncomplicated cliché as “the poor side of town,” Beaver Brook was a place where the aspirations of a rising African American middle class found expression in a robust social and cultural life, where safety and autonomy for people of color seemed ascendant. Portraiture offered a way to celebrate and affirm that upward movement, inscribing a still moment as proof of a much greater dynamism.
Bullard was not merely a white photographer willing to take portraits of African American clients because he knew their money was as green as anyone else’s. His own economic opportunity did factor in, of course, but Burns argues that the formal proficiency of his photographs shows that he understood how to take pictures of black people as black people, without reaching into the pre-Photoshop bag of tricks that included skin whitening (a practice that has endured long into the Photoshop era). Because he lived in Beaver Brook, Bullard’s superior apprehension of contrast and composition were born naturally and of necessity. “The racial diversity of his neighborhood,” Burns explains, “motivated Bullard to conceive of a technical framework for his photography that retained the integrity of the black body while adhering to the standards of white portraiture.” Getting it right was not rocket science. Burns concludes that he “clearly developed a following, or at least the trust, of a significant number of black and Native American families in his neighborhood,” which doubtless came from the “common identity of place and class” he shared with them. The portfolio of William Bullard is also a kind of case study, then, of the kind of photography that can develop where residential segregation is less rigid and the social boundaries of race and class are more easily traversed.
The effort to bring William Bullard’s photographs of Beaver Brook to the public has involved the labor of academics, curators, amateur historians, graduate and undergraduate students, interns, librarians, and some descendants of Bullard’s subjects, who “generously shared family stories and genealogical information with us.” Many institutions around the country like the Worcester Art Museum would not have seen—and do not see—the value in dedicating the resources or the time to build the scholarship and the partnerships necessary to realize a project like this one. Let Bullard’s record of Beaver Brook inspire them to make room in storage for their homesteader dioramas and silver sets and instead work to “rediscover” the photographic record of communities of color like this one. Not a few of those institutions will have to begin by discovering the communities of color in their own backyards.
- John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier, Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American (New York: Liveright, 2015).
Andrew Holter is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.