Picturing Dunbar's Lyrics

Article excerpt

From 1899 until shortly after his death in 1906, Paul Laurence Dunbar published six books of poetry in African American dialect, patterned ornately with Art Nouveau decoration, and illustrated extensively with photographs, positioning text and images with nearly equivalent emphasis. (1) Comprising half Dunbar's output of published poetry, and among his most popular volumes, the illustrated editions demonstrate Dunbar's substantial interaction with photography, and represent an early, extensive, and influential use of text published with photographs. Dunbar's Poems of Cabin and Field (1899), Candle Lightin' Time (1901), When Malindy Sings (1903), L'il Gal (1904), Howdy, Honey, Howdy (1905), and Joggin' Erlong (1906), all published by Dodd, Mead and Company, remain defining monuments of text and image in the history of African American letters and US publishing. Made possible only by the refinement of half-tone printing in the 1890s, the Dunbar books positioned text and photographs on the same page, one image per stanza, an established formula for the illustrated poetry of the day. (2) The photo books made a more substantial contribution to Dunbar's lifework and to US cultural history than scholars have estimated previously. The first two books in the series, Poems of Cabin and Field and Candle Lightin' Time, were published in five and four US editions of 5000, respectively, and several of the books were published additionally in English and Canadian editions (Martin and Hudson 21). (3) During his lifetime, many Americans would have read Dunbar's work in this form, and perhaps with the exception of the Farm Security Administration, the more than 450 total images that appear in the Dunbar books represent the largest body of photographs of African Americans published to date, a major unexplored resource in the history of American visual culture and African American studies. In addition to formal innovations anticipating cinematic montage, the Dunbar photo-texts add significantly to a limited canon of artistic images of African Americans, and clarify the poet's own iconography and range, frequently articulating tropes in Dunbar's work that remain latent suggestions in their purely textual form. Although the Dunbar books did not necessarily pioneer the photograph-and-poetry form, several later African American writers and/or photographers--among them, Langston Hughes, Roy de Carava, Gordon Parks, Richard Wright, and Walter Dean Myers--collaborated to produce illustrated books of poetry, making the form a lasting convention in African American letters, implicitly paying homage to Dunbar's foundational works in the genre. (4)

Throughout the publication run of the books, the photographic illustrations were made by the predominantly white faculty and staff members of the Hampton Institute Camera Club; most hailed from New England and other areas of the Northeast. Citing Germanic art photography and the historic Pamunkey Indian name for the peninsula on which the school was located, the club was known internally, and presumably satirically, as the "Kiquotan Kamera Klub." In the first three published books, the photographs were credited to the "Hampton Institute Camera Club," to maintain the school's profile in the public eye, and evidently to suggest the poet's close connection to the school. An accomplished and judicious club member who emerged as the lead photographer, Leigh Richmond Miner illustrated the final three books individually. The Camera Club operated from 1893-1926, and folded a few years after Hampton's faculty was integrated in 1923. Including spouses, the Camera Club had only seven identifiable African American members throughout its history, although determining racial identity through textual documents is fraught with uncertainty; others may yet be identified. No Indians seem to have been members of the club, although substantial numbers attended the school through 1912. No students of either race were members of the club, and it does not appear that photography was taught as a trade or skill until later in the schools history. …

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