Mangum’s photos reveal Durhamites from 100 years ago

Exhibit opening Tuesday at Durham History Hub
Jul. 18, 2014 @ 05:36 PM

Four years ago, Sarah Stacke moved to Durham from Brooklyn for graduate school at Duke University. Taking a class on documentary photography, she happened upon the university’s archive of photographs taken in the late 1800s and early 1900s by Durham photographer Hugh Mangum.

“I was drawn to the collection in hopes of learning more about the history of my new surroundings,” Stacke said. “I was instantly mesmerized by the power of Mangum’s images. The personalities were so vibrant, as if the photos had just been made yesterday.”

The archive of Mangum’s work includes 687 images in the collection at Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Collection. Eighteen of those photographs will be featured in a new exhibit, “Hugh Mangum on Main Street: Portraits from the Early 20th Century,” at the Museum of Durham History’s building downtown, called the Hub. It opens Tuesday, with a reception on Wednesday.

Stacke, now back in Brooklyn, also teaches in the continuing education program at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies. The Hub exhibit is co-curated by Margaret Sartor, who taught the class that piqued Stacke’s initial interest – “Photography in Context: Photographic Meaning and the Archive of Documentary Arts.” Stacke and Sartor are working on a book about Mangum.

West Point on the Eno, a Durham city park, is home to the Hugh Mangum Museum of Photography and the McCown-Mangum house, where his family lived. His father was an early Durham postmaster.

The park is the site of the annual Festival for the Eno, as the park is on the Eno River. Hugh Mangum began taking photographs as a teenager. His work also took him to Southwestern Virginia, and he set up studios in Radford, Pulaski and Roanoke, Virginia, according to the Eno River Association. Mangum lived from 1877 to 1922.

Stacke said it’s clear from Mangum’s photos that “everyone was treated equally inside the studio regardless of class, color or gender.”

Cindy Gardiner of the Museum of Durham History said Mangum used a “penny picture” camera that put a number of images on the same plate, which made a formal picture affordable and accessible to a broad clientele including rich and poor, black and white.

Katie Spencer, executive director of the museum, said that Stacke and Sartor pitched their exhibit idea at the Hub’s grand opening last year. As she learned more, Spencer said, hosting the exhibit was a no-brainer.

Spencer said that Mangum “was really one of those gems, as a Durhamite. He represents all the things we love about Durham -- very creative, and ahead of his time. Obviously he saw, or didn’t see, race like his contemporaries.”

The museum hopes that hosting the exhibit will result in identifying the people who sat for the photographs.

“There’s no doubt in my mind there are descendants, relatives of these sitters we haven’t come across yet,” Spencer said. They knew who was behind the camera, and hope to find out who was in front of it, Spencer said.

Stacke said Mangum’s images “allow us to look into individual faces of the past and they offer an unusually revealing glimpse of the early-20th-century American South. As far as his impact on Durham during his lifetime, I think it's important to note that the service he provided – photographs – was tremendously vital, particularly for the black community.” Those studio portraits, Stacke said, were also a way to create and celebrate black identity. She feels the people in Mangum’s photographs are “waiting to be found and named, and yearning to enrich the understanding of our history and our present.”

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