In this historical project we have collaborated with the University of Duke to bring Mangum’s work to light for the first time in Europe. After his untimely death in 1922 at the age of forty-four, Mangum’s black-and-white, glass plate negatives were stored in a barn on his family’s farm in Durham, North Carolina. Slated for demolition in the 1970s, the barn was saved at the last moment, and with it, this surprising and unparalleled document of life during a turbulent time in the history of the southern United States.
In the late 1890s, Mangum began riding the rails as an itinerant portraitist, traveling primarily in North Carolina and Virginia during the rise of the Jim Crow era, a period in which laws were passed throughout the South to enforce segregation. Despite this, his portraits reveal a clientele that was both racially and economically diverse and show lives marked by notable affluence and hard work, all imbued with a strong sense of individuality and self-creation.
One of the profound surprises of Mangum’s photography is its artistic freshness. He had a charm and curiosity that is often reflected in the faces of his sitters. In other images, Mangum’s presence as a photographer is invisible and the sitters appear lost in their own private, interior worlds. Mangum’s ability to capture these moments of vulnerability and intense self-recognition lies at the heart of his gift as a photographer.
The people in these portraits stare back at us across a hundred years of time’s passing, through the indelible marks of damage and disregard. We may think the difference of a century considerable, and in so many ways that is true. But these portraits suggest that the distance between then and now, them and us, is a lot closer than we might expect.
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