Hugh Mangum (1877-1922)

These days I seldom seem to have a good word for the BBC, and their coverage of the Scottish question in recent weeks has further mired their reputation. It will be hard to believe any report from their political editor Nick Robinson after he was widely perceived to have made “a brazen and quite spectacular lie” about Alex Salmond’s lengthy response to his questions at a press conference.

So it’s nice to get a little away from politics and have something positive to say about one of our great British institutions. In the BBC online Magazine there is an interesting article by Rob Brown of the BBC World Service, The photographer who rejected racism in the American south, about a relatively unknown photographer, Hugh Mangum (1877-1922), a self-taught itinerant photographer from Durham in North Carolina who travelled by rail across North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia and set up temporary studios producing low cost portraits for anyone who wanted a photograph of themselves or their family.

The Penny Picture Camera he used allowed for a variable number of images on a single glass plate, cutting the costs of each exposure (and hence its name – with the smallest pictures costing only a penny), and sometimes the photographer would get things a little wrong, producing unintended if sometimes interesting multiple exposures.

Some of the pictures have been on show last month at the Museum of Durham History, curated by Sarah Stacke, who is working together with Margaret Sartor of the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies on a book about Mangum. You can see all of the 688 surviving negatives in the  Hugh Mangum Photograph Collection on-line in their fine Digital Collections site, where you can also download images at various sizes for  study and personal use.  The surviving images are almost certainly only a small fraction of his work.

Mangum was unknown to me until I read the BBC World Service article, although there was an article by Stacke about him on the NY Times Lens blog in August last year that I missed.

You can see more about Penny Picture Cameras on the web, and there is a detailed description of the 5×7  Century Penny Picture camera which was manufactured by the Century Camera Company from  1900 to 1907, and then when they became part of the Kodak empire by the Folmer & Schwing Division of the Eastman Kodak Company until 1926. After leaving Kodak they made a similar camera until 1937. There were also other cameras of this type available and I don’t know if it was a Century that Mangum used for his work.

Mangum’s pictures are interesting in showing us such a cross-section of the population of the US South, working across the boundaries of race in a society that was, as Stacke says “marked by disenfranchisement, segregation and inequality — between black and white, men and women, rich and poor” and also for the directness of the images, showing the people he photographed as individuals.

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