Reminders of why we take photographs run throughout “Double Exposure: African Americans Before and Behind the Camera,” which comes from Hartford, Connecticut’s Amistad Center for Art and Culture. The exhibition links 19th-century tintypes and other historic works by black photogs such as Augustus Washington and James Van Der Zee to pieces by contemporary artists inspired by those pioneers.
Myriad portraits from both eras manifest our desire to represent ourselves and our loved ones, as in Albert Chong’s 1986 photograph of a flower-bedecked 1920s snapshot of his cousin (pictured) reflects a reverence similar to that of Lewis Watts’s African American Parade, Harlem (2007), in which the procession bears larger-than-life posters of activists such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
Carrie Mae Weems engages photography’s role in classification to chilling effect in House, Yard, Field, Kitchen (1995–96). She prints the title’s words on four sheets of red plastic, suggesting the blood-tinged portraits beneath them depict slaves. But Bayeté Ross Smith thwarts categorization in Kaes Jansen, Edward Tennyson (2006). Inserting the same black man’s photo into different passports, Smith asks viewers to consider their varying responses to the man’s nationalities while proving multiple identities are plausible.
Other photographers play with the “documentary” nature of their medium. Renee Cox’s The Liberation of Lady J and U.B. (1998), captures the moment when the artist’s superheroine alter ego frees Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben from their racist products. Balancing visual tropes from art and advertising, Cox shatters stereotypes with humor. Her peers and predecessors here are equally resourceful.