From the Archive: The Negatives of Hugh Mangum

N612, Hugh Mangum Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

N612, Hugh Mangum Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

This post is the first in a new series that takes a closer look at specific holdings of the Archive of Documentary Arts, which is part of Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The archive works closely with the Center for Documentary Studies and has been collecting work generated by CDS for almost thirty years. The From the Archive series was created, and is curated and written by, CDS digital arts and publishing intern Tory Jeffay.

Hugh Mangum, born and raised in Durham, North Carolina, worked as a portrait photographer in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Mangum and his partners maintained studios in several Virginia towns, as well as in downtown Durham, but he also traveled throughout the two states, his equipment in a leather trunk, setting up mobile studios in tents or empty storefronts.

Mangum used a penny picture camera, a view camera with a modified back that allowed for multiple portraits on a single plate. After a picture was taken, the photographer would adjust the frame into the next position. The resulting negatives provide a record of the photographer’s work, sitter by sitter, revealing the wide swath of the population that made up Mangum’s clientele. Whites and blacks, men and women, rich and poor all sat for his camera, then returned the next day to pick up their prints. They likely never got see who sat next to them in photographic space, but luckily these chance compositions are preserved in the more than seven hundred negatives held by the Archive of Documentary Arts.

The penny picture camera process was designed to reduce cost and labor, and many of the negatives show a neat grid like a page from a yearbook. But occasional flaws in the process create striking compositions. There’s overlap, gapping; some plates are barely half-full. The shoulder of one man intrudes into the frame of his neighbor. Double exposures create two-headed hybrids. Squirming babies become ghostly apparitions. And one hundred years after their exposure, there are signs of deterioration; before being preserved, the collection weathered the elements for years in a tobacco pack house on the Mangum family property. The blue fractal splotches and peeling edges add another level of incidental aesthetic interest.

Below, we’ve collected a grouping of some of Mangum’s more anomalous plates. The full collection of Hugh Mangum’s photography is viewable online at the Duke University Library Digital Collections website. 

An exhibition of Mangum’s work was shown at CDS in fall 2012. The exhibition, curated by photographer Sarah Stacke, can be viewed digitally here. Stacke also wrote about Mangum for the New York Times Lens blog.

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