University of Virginia: Pop-Up Exhibit of African American Portraits Highlights Pride, Hints at History

Wearing a stiff hat adorned with small flowers and a fine, lacey blouse, the lone woman gazes directly into the lens – and hence at the viewer, her expression as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa’s.

Her identity is currently a mystery, one of the many unknowns surrounding the subjects of about 500 portraits of local African Americans who commissioned the Holsinger Studio, owned by professional Charlottesville photographer Rufus W. Holsinger, to take their pictures in the early 20th century.

University of Virginia associate history professor John Edwin Mason and others, including scholars, students and community members, are on a mission to share these images and perhaps solve some of those mysteries via the Holsinger Portrait Project. A partnership between UVA and the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, the collaborative project is based on the Holsinger Studio Collection, held in the University’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

A new pop-up exhibition that displays a selection of the portraits through the month of March is set up to entice the public at the Northside branch of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library.

Mason considers the exhibit a teaser – with just enough information to give context for those viewers who haven’t seen the images or known about the Holsinger Studio Collection.

Although the woman in the hat is unidentified, Mason and researchers have a suspicion about who she is, but are still trying to nail it down, he said. He hopes they can identify her and say more about her life when a more comprehensive exhibition opens in the fall.

A studio fire in 1912 destroyed the Holsinger Studio’s early business ledgers and some negatives, leaving many people in the portraits unidentified. The library collection, acquired in 1978, comprises approximately 9,000 dry-plate glass negatives and 500 celluloid negatives.

“With the Holsinger Portrait Project, we want to change the way people see our history – and I mean, see it literally and understand it,” said Mason, who is co-director of the project. “The exhibition is a way of telling history that doesn’t start with oppression, but with beauty, style, grace and dignity.”

Nowadays it’s commonplace to share selfies taken with smartphones on social media, but it was a big deal to get a photographic portrait made 100 or so years ago. The African Americans in the Holsinger Studio portraits clearly look like they wanted to show themselves in the best light, as a counterweight to the discriminatory forces leading to Jim Crow laws, restrictions and segregation, Mason said.

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