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Daily Art Moment: R. Poole Photography Studio

“Today is #Juneteenth, the commemoration and celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. Although the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, it was not until over two years later, on June 19, 1865, that enslaved people in Texas finally were granted freedom.

This carte-de-visite portrait of an African American woman, one of the oldest photographs in our collection, was made in Nashville, Tennessee, around 1872. A handwritten note on the photograph’s backing board reads ‘Mrs. T. Foster.’ While we don’t know how long Mrs. Foster had lived in or around Nashville (or if she was passing through from elsewhere), it is very likely that she was born into slavery. Tennessee entered the Union as a slavery state in 1796 and joined the Confederate States of America in 1861. Over 275,000 enslaved people lived in Tennessee when the Civil War began. They were not granted freedom until October 24, 1864.

Photography, the new medium introduced to the United States in 1839, played a significant role in dehumanizing African American subjects in the support of slavery and white supremacy. It was also embraced by abolitionists who used it to promote freedom and equality: During the 1850s, Sojourner Truth sold copies of a carte-de-visite portrait of herself stamped with the statement: ‘I sell the shadow to support the substance.’ Frederick Douglass, the most photographed nineteenth-century American, insisted that photographic portraits of African Americans ‘highlighted the essential humanity of its subjects.’ This portrait of Mrs. Foster celebrates human rights and is a beautiful photographic reminder that Black lives matter.”

Julia Dolan, The Minor White Curator of Photography

R. Poole Photography Studio, (American, active 19th century). Untitled (Mrs. T. Foster), ca. 1872. Albumen silver print. Museum Purchase: Photography Acquisition Fund, 2015.121.59t