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Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
T’was blind but now I see
– By English poet, clergyman & reformed slave trader, John Newton, 1779
What better way to appreciate Black History Month than to experience the surprising historical revelations uncovered in Rediscovering an American Community of Color: The Photographs of William Bullard, 1897-1917? From pristine glass negatives and evocative prints to the meticulous logbooks kept by photographer William Bullard as he documented his neighbors in the Beaver Brook enclave of Worcester, Massachusetts at the turn of the last century, everything about this exhibit is amazing. See it through February 25th, 2018 at the Worcester Art Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Although many specifics about photographer William Bullard (1876-1918) remain elusive, it becomes obvious through this exhibit that he was an ardent and skillful amateur photographer who developed an engaging sense of composition and rapport with his sitters. Traveling door-to-door in his own neighborhood, he pictured his subjects in their home environments, usually outdoors or in a parlor room, capitalizing on their sense of belonging. Although there is some evidence that Bullard charged for either his services or his prints, by contrast, most photographers of the day worked in professional studios, picturing strangers for a fee. Bullard’s insider standing is abundantly obvious in his images; photographs from this era rarely exhibit the expressive character he was able to elicit in many of his subjects.
Bullard’s environmental venues set his photographs apart even further, revealing a contextualized picture of his life and times that remain largely absent through studio portraiture. Through them, we are able to divine clothing, furniture and architectural styles, as well as more nuanced implications in details like the condition of garments and shoes, the repair of wood siding on a home or in the presence of things like clotheslines in the background. Photographs of African American men at work in respectable, higher wage jobs like coachman, train porter, barber and the military provide evidence of Bullard’s desire to dignify his subjects.
Bullard’s mastery of dark skin tones is notable and further hints at an underlying empathy and desire to elevate and validate the status of his neighbors in Beaver Brook, a diverse working class community of recently freed African Americans from the south, relocated Native Americans and immigrant Europeans. His photographs possess a full tonal range and it’s fascinating to note how Bullard was careful to maintain contrast between his sitters and background and how he occasionally blew out the highlights in favor of preserving the rich detail and verity of skin hues. He often photographed entire extended families like the Perkinses and Wards, returning for multiple sittings, and kept copious logbooks matching names, addresses and other family information to numbers inked onto his glass negatives for cross-referencing.
The combination of Bullard’s access to the Beaver Brook community, his unconventional documentary portraiture and detailed record-keeping, unlock an American story of migration. The decade during which Bullard made most of his photographs in Beaver Brook (1900-1908) marked a unique juncture of progressive diversity in Worcester, bringing together freed southern slaves fleeing the racial backlash to Reconstruction following the Civil War, an influx of white European immigrants, and the resettling of rural Narangansett and Nipmuc Native Americans into the city. This was a period of blatant prejudice against Native Americans and, conversely, one of empowerment for African Americans. Bullard’s images celebrate evidence of the “New Negro Movement”, an economic and intellectual mobility reflected in clothing styles, leisure activities like bicycling and luxuries like toy rocking horses and formal music lessons.
One of the most satisfying aspects of this deeply researched and moving exhibit is the personal connections it traces. Family histories within the Beaver Brook community spring to life with domestic details. And thanks to Bullard’s legible notes, diligent researchers have been able to trace some of those connections to the present day. For example, the museum located three descendants of the classically-trained viola teacher, David T. Oswell (above): a concert pianist and Professor Emeritus at Howard University and, from another branch of the family, two child-prodigy violinists, who all performed together at a private museum event for “found” family members last fall. Over a period of four years, a team headed by the show’s co-curators, Nancy Kathryn Burns, Worcester Art Museum Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs and Janette Thomas Greenwood, Clark University Professor of History, transformed a string of fortuitous chance happenings that began with the discovery of Bullard’s trove of over 5400 pristine glass negatives into the riveting stories of a unique community in an unusual time and the uncommon photographer who brought them to life for us. Amazing Grace.
This exhibit will be on view at the Worcester Art Museum through February 25th, 2018. For directions, hours and more information, go to: http://www.worcesterart.org/exhibitions/william-bullard/
An exhibition catalog can be purchased through amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Rediscovering-American-Community-Color-Photographs/dp/0998681733/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1517928327&sr=8-1&keywords=rediscovering+an+american+community+of+color
A wonderful archive of images and resources are also available at: www.bullardphotos.org
Feature Image: “Portrait of Raymond Schuyler and his children, Ethel, Stephen, Beatrice and Dorothea, about 1904” (Detail) by William Bullard (courtesy of the Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA).