Photo Books

Frances Benjamin Johnston: The Hampton Album, John Edmonds: Higher

BY Vince Aletti, September 11, 2019

The Museum of Modern Art’s recent Lincoln Kirstein exhibition gave the museum the perfect opportunity to reissue, in a substantially revised form, a publication the curator and collector had helped bring into print. Originally published in 1966 to accompany an exhibition of 43 photographs, The Hampton Album was an abridged version of a leather-bound portfolio Kirstein had found some 20 years earlier in a Washington, DC, bookshop and had just donated to MoMA. The entire contents of that album – 159 platinum prints made in 1899 for inclusion in the American Negro Exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition – are reproduced in the new book, which also gives more prominent front-cover credit to its author, Frances Benjamin Johnston, a successful, white commercial photographer Kirstein refers to as “the little lady” in his otherwise effusive and admiring original text. Founded in 1868 as a school for black and Native American students, the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, in Hampton, VA, emphasized vocational education and practical skills, and Johnston’s photographs show students at work as well as in the classroom. In her introduction to the new volume, Sarah Hermanson Meister describes those images as “the visual equivalent of lucid prose,” and they are surprisingly satisfying. Johnston stages each tableau as if she’s compiling panels for a larger historical frieze. Her cast of characters is large and well dressed, the boys usually in military-school uniforms, the girls in prim, floor-length dresses and, if outdoors, hats; even their work clothes are stylish. Whether the class is judging a dairy cow, studying capillary phenomena, or making butter, there’s a sense of formality to the proceedings – an atmosphere of commitment and concern that’s unlikely to have had a reliable equivalent in the outside world. 

But Hampton wasn’t exactly an Eden for its student body. As Meister points out, “Native Americans and African Americans had separate dining halls, dorms, chapel seating areas, musical ensembles and sports teams; they shared little but classrooms.” Despite its appearance in a period of heated Civil Rights activism, Kirstein’s Album tended to glide over issues of race and inequality and focus instead on aesthetics. With The Hampton Project, an installation piece from 2000 that recontextualized Johnston’s photographs, situating them at “the end of authenticity and the beginning of cultural tourism,” Carrie Mae Weems made it clear that that’s no longer possible. In another essay in the revised Album, LaToya Ruby Frazier describes the Hampton system as “rooted in paternalism and benevolent racism.” If The Hampton Album began as a cannily timed curiosity, it returns as a fascinating artifact, disarmingly appealing but more fraught and provocative than ever. 

I wonder how John Edmonds’s suave, savvy, of-the-moment Higher (Capricious) might be seen some 50 years from now. Edmonds, a star of the current Whitney Biennial, collects photographs from four recent series, nearly all of them portraits. His subjects are other young black men – friends, peers, lovers – and women, seen with a kind of passionate restraint. Despite this fine formal reserve, the work feels like the result of an exchange, an understanding, a bond. In a conversation with Mickalene Thomas, included as an afterword, Edmonds describes this as a “convergence of spirits,” and it’s no surprise that he’s spent a lot of time looking at Renaissance and religious art; his subjects have a subtle glow, an aura. “There’s a conjuring of desire to touch and to be there in the moment,” Edmonds says. Oddly, this is especially evident in his images of faceless figures in hoodies or in flowing satin du-rags. Even turned away, they have a compelling presence. While Edmonds delves shrewdly into issues of gender, class, and identity, he says he’s always working toward “a picture filled with beauty, desire, and possibility;” he’s achieved that here.