Curators for the “Black Every Day” photography exhibit at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art started planning their show two years ago, but one of the curators said it’s been “eye-opening” to see how relevant the show is today.
“As we were planning this show, there was no way to anticipate the past month that we’ve had of shootings: Buffalo, Uvalde, Philadelphia, Tulsa … everywhere. And so I think it is definitely timely,” Lauren Cross, one of the co-curators said.
The idea for the exhibition, which highlights snapshots of the everyday lives of Black Americans, came in the summer of 2020 following the police killing of George Floyd.
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“There’s a lot of a need to respect humanity in today’s day. And so, I think that’s what the show is all about, is the people whose humanity hasn’t been respected and seeing the value of people who haven’t always been valued. We clearly live in a world where we need to be reminded of that every day,” she continued.
In the summer of 2020, curatorial staff at the Carter, like other institutions, had discussions about representation of Black Americans across media and how much of that attention was either focused on trauma, violence or history.
“There was a lot of talk about Black History Month or images of police violence and murder. And those were the representations commonly seen, so the show was sort of in response to that,” Kristen Gaylord, associate curator of photographs at the Carter Museum and co-curator of the exhibit, said.
The museum had also recently acquired some 200 vernacular photos, or images that weren’t made with the express purpose of being art, of Black Americans from a collector, Peter J. Cohen.
Gaylord says she immediately knew that she needed a co-curator for the exhibit and five different people recommended that she reach out to Lauren Cross.
“I wanted someone who’s had lived experiences that I didn’t have of being Black in this country, but also had scholarly specialty in Black history and material culture and depiction, art history and all these things,” Gaylord said.
Cross’ background checks those boxes. In addition to being an artist and curator, she also holds a Ph.D. in Multicultural Women’s and Gender Studies from Texas Woman’s University and is an assistant professor of interdisciplinary art and design studies at the University of North Texas.
She said she was excited to sign on, having been interested in vernacular photography since sifting through her own family’s collection and her later experience looking through the Mary Everhard Collection when she was a Carter Community Artist.
For both curators, deciding what photos to leave out was just as important as the photos that they chose to leave in.
“That’s definitely an important thing to me to make sure that things were correct and reflective of what I felt were actual everyday experiences that Black people have,” Cross said. “Also going back to what Kristen said was a major inspiration for her, in terms of not wanting to recycle the same kind of tropes that we’ve seen before in terms of popular culture, is not wanting people to come into the museum and be traumatized.”
Cross kept those feelings in mind when working through what images to leave out.
“I wanted to be intentional about, like, ‘OK, I can make a point, but I don’t have to make that point,’” she explained.
Gaylord concurred — it wouldn’t have been possible to produce the show without Cross.
“We had a lot of discussions walking that line about (how) we don’t want to ignore the oppressive parts of what Black history in this country has been. But that’s not what the show is about,” Gaylord said, noting that they made sure to acknowledge that reality without focusing on it.
Both co-curators said they wanted to create a safe space for people to relax, think about representation and see experiences similar to their own reflected back to them.
Two studies from within the past decade show that those opportunities are limited. In a 2020 study focused on pop culture, 83% of Black Americans said they felt that Hollywood perpetuates negative stereotypes about Black people. Similarly, a study of news media from December 2017, furthered some of those negative stereotypes by overrepresenting Black families when reporting on poverty and underrepresenting the share of white families in the same situation.
This exhibit counters those depictions by focusing on five separate areas: community, labor, family, excellence and vernacular images over a span of more than 100 years, including a 19th century daguerreotype and a large scale portrait shot in 2017.
While the images in the exhibit are focused on Black life, not all of the image makers in the exhibit were Black themselves.
“Who’s taking the images is still a key question, even if you’re talking about what’s in the images. So we did need to address who was behind the camera and a lot of these images and why. … We do have Black photographers in the show, though the majority are not. And any time we had a Black photographer, we made sure to include an extended label on that work to highlight them for our visitors,” Gaylord said.
Displaying the mix of portraits, documentary photos and snapshots from the vernacular collection next to one another gives guests the opportunity to reflect on the different outcomes in the images based on the relationship between the subjects and who is behind the camera.
For Gaylord, it was important to be able to dedicate an entire room to Black experiences, for all of the museum’s patrons, but especially for the locals who visit the museum regularly.
“It’s also showing what can come out of the Carter collection if you look at it with a different lens. Some of these images have been on view before, but always in a different context. And some of them had never been on view before. And so what if instead of looking for this, this or this in the collection, we look for this and look at the richness we can kind of find,” Gaylord said.
Though the exhibit is organized in different sections, both Gaylord and Cross acknowledge that there are some photos that sit at the intersection of some of those categories.
And, as Cross notes, there is a throughline that runs throughout the entirety of the exhibit.
“There were so many works to celebrate that showed the Black community in Fort Worth and beyond really just finding ways through the trauma, through the oppression to carve out their own place in society,” Cross said. “That was really the essence of what I felt needed to be captured, is how people learn how to survive and sustain themselves in a world that is oppressive. So I wanted those moments of joy to be reflected.”
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.