CAMBRIDGE — “Black Chronicles II” is simple to describe. It consists of somewhat more than 100 recently discovered, or rediscovered, photographs of people of color in Victorian England. The overwhelming majority of the people are black, but there are also South Asians. The shows runs through Dec. 11 at Harvard University’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art at the Hutchins Center, in Harvard Square.
Why the Roman numeral in the name? “Black Chronicles II” originated in England. The show followed up on one in 2011 called “Black Chronicles.” That show, based on the work of four photojournalists, looked at blacks during the middle of the last century in England and America.
What isn’t so simple is how “Black Chronicles II” ramifies. This speaks to the show’s richness and complexity. The photographs, which range in date from 1862 to 1900, take several forms. There are cartes-de-visite, cabinet cards, studio portraits — the sorts of photographic portraits that everyday Britons might have been expected to pose for and display in their homes. Diversity may not be such a late-20th-century discovery after all.
Not all of these images are of the everyday sort, but the fact that so many are seems far more exotic than the subjects’ skin color. We see married couples, men in uniform, a black butler and white maid (with their white employers), two bishops, a Salvation Army major, people in their Sunday finery (there are at least three top hats in the show). The fact that nearly half the subjects are listed as “Unidentified sitter” indicates not just the relative social unimportance of these men and women (the names of the bishops and major we know) but also their ubiquity. Victorian Britain’s racial views may have been predictable. Its racial composition was not.
As regards those racial views, there are any number of demonstrations. Perhaps the most egregious shows the murderous explorer Henry Stanley (pith helmet on head, riding crop on leg) with Kalulu, an African boy in native garb. It’s hard to say whose appearance seems more bogusly theatrical.
There are many additional photographs in which people of color are presented as markedly, even unredeemedly, other — explicitly alien in costume, pose, or manner. This is an all-too-familiar Victorian Age.
The most remarkable set of photographs presents a quiet collision — or uneasy rapprochement — between otherness and acceptance. It consists of nearly three dozen pictures of a touring choral group, the African Choir, from 1891. We see the group together. We see it with the two (white) promoters who brought them to England. We see portraits of individual members.
The portraits have been blown up to poster size, nearly 4 feet by 3 feet. The size appears startling at first, after seeing so many images that are almost thumbnail-size, as we’d now say, with the cartes-de-visites. Surprise quickly gives way to pleasure. Faces as remarkable as those of Eleanor Xiniwe and Johanna Jonkers not only stand up to such daunting size; they reward it. More than that, seeing the faces so large gives them a sense of immediacy and contemporaneity. All photographs collapse time. These transcend it.
BLACK CHRONICLES II
Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art at the Hutchins Center, Harvard University, 102 Mount Auburn St., Cambridge, through Dec. 11, 617-496-5777, hutchinscenter.fas.harvard.edu
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.