The first words in the Bible are “In the beginning.” The first words in photography are “Seeing is believing.” That statement always raises a question, though. What exactly is being believed? The issue isn’t necessarily the three-dimensional facts that have been captured in two-dimensional form, but the implications — social, political, moral — that those facts have for the viewer. And there’s an important variant of “seeing is believing”: Seeing was believing. What was believed about a person or set of social circumstances seen in a photograph 150 years ago may not be believed by viewers of that same photograph today.
The slipperiness of seeing, belief, and interpretation as pertains to race and identity is what inspires “The Mirror of Race: Seeing Ourselves Through History.” The show runs through Feb. 25 at Suffolk University’s Adams Gallery.
“The Mirror of Race” takes its title from a quirk of optics. Among the 90 or so images in the show are many daguerrotypes. A daguerreotype is metal. This means that, depending on the angle, the plate can reflect the image of the person looking at the image. So in looking at the past captured in these photographs, we see ourselves and the present, as well.
Suffolk philosophy professor Gregory Fried curated the show, and its concerns are intellectual rather than aesthetic. “The Mirror of Otherness” might be a better title than “The Mirror of Race,” for the questions of identity are ethnic and sexual as well as racial. The show is didactic, and properly so. It puts looking at the service of pondering.
There are two sets of 19th-century photographs, for example, arrayed along “discovery walls.” The discovery part is owing to the labels being concealed under covers. That Union officer posing for his portrait? Lift the cover and discover that he is a she. Frances Clalin Clayton posed as “Jack Williams” so she could join the Union army to be with her husband. A photograph of Clayton in a dress emphasizes her transformation. Weirdly enough, she bears a striking resemblance to the singer k.d. lang.
The question of doubling or passing comes up several times. For a carte-de-visite portrait, a Burmese convert to Christianity named Moung Kyau had a double exposure made. Thus he can be seen wearing native dress in one and Western attire in the other. Or there’s the dual portrait that an Armenian immigrant, N.A. Morjickian, posed for. He, too, wears a Western suit in one and the garb of his native land in the other.
Nearly all the individuals seen in “The Mirror of Race” are like Clayton, Kyau, and Morjickian: otherwise anonymous or little known. There are a few exceptions: Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and James M. Trotter (father of William Monroe Trotter, after whom the Boston elementary school is named). But their prominence was defined then by race far more than by personal achievement or identity. Certainly, identity isn’t the issue with Zubblia Aggiola, Circassian Lady. Circassians were reputed to be the purest of all Caucasians (did Hitler know this?), and this woman earned her living on stage as a model of racial purity for that champion huckster P.T. Barnum, who had her hair shampoo’d in beer to emphasize whiteness.
Other images lack any such inadvertent comedy. A staged theatrical scene from 1880 shows an African-American being hung. A tintype from 1870 abjures such gruesomeness. It can even be interpreted as a model of racial comity: a small white child sits in the lap of an older African-American man. Except that his face has been blacked out, since the idea of interracial contact, however innocent, was so distasteful.
In a nicely unexpected coda, the show concludes with four contemporary tintypes. They’re of US military personnel in Afghanistan, taken by Ed Drew while serving there in an Air Force rescue unit. The images are — in a good way — doubly disorienting. We don’t expect to see 21st-century tintypes, and the various assumptions about race and identity that we’ve seen in so many of the other images in the gallery are turned upside down. Female soldiers? Racial and ethnic diversity as not just a given but a civic virtue? Call it, as someone once did, change you can believe in.
Suffolk has scheduled a conference on “A Mirror of Race” for Jan. 31.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.