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An Itinerant Photographer Who Made Everyone His Subject

Self-taught portrait photographer Hugh Mangum thought of himself as an artist from a young age. He attended classes at the Methodist Female Seminary’s art department in Durham as a young boy and ultimately became a traveling photographer. 

The glass-plate negatives of his photos show his efforts to capture a vast array of subjects who traverse boundaries of gender, race, and class. Those images are collected in the new book “Where We Find Ourselves: The Photographs of Hugh Mangum, 1897-1922” (The University of North Carolina Press/2019).

Host Frank Stasio talks to the book’s co-editors, Margaret Sartor and Alex Harris, about their investigation into Mangum’s life, work and legacy. Sartor and Harris are both writers, photographers, and instructors at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. They will be at the Nasher Museum in Durham on Friday, Jan. 18 for a gallery talk and book signing to launch the exhibition “Where We Find Ourselves: The Photographs of Hugh Mangum, 1897-1922,” which is on view from Jan. 19 to May 19. 


Sartor on who Mangum photographed:

[He photographed] an incredibly wide range of people from a wide range of backgrounds. It's our idea that he became itinerant in order to attract this diversity of clients  — had he a permanent studio, he most likely would have had to rely on the elite and wealthy as most permanent studios did. But by setting up these tents, he offered affordable pictures for almost anyone …  I haven't been able to find evidence of another photographer who had those people in the studio at the same time.

No one can know what Magnum thought of his own work or really know his motivations. But what we can see is the man reflected in the faces of the people he photographed. - Alex Harris

Harris on why he and Sartor decided to recreate Mangum’s photos in color:

When we saw these scans in color, we realized that each of the negatives — each of the people — had a slightly different tonality because of the way they aged. And it makes us think, when we look at them: These are individuals. These artifacts are shown as different. Each person has a slightly different tone and look.

Sartor on the contemporary value of Mangum’s photos:

What brought me and Alex really to this project was not the idea of looking at antique portraiture — not just a window into the past. But ... All of us are engaged right now in the idea of looking back at our cultural past and trying to see it and know it in a completely different way. When we look at these pictures, they give us images for moving forward. They question the narrative that we have accepted about the early 20th century in this region of the country.

Amanda Magnus is the executive producer of Embodied, a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She has also worked on other WUNC shows including Tested and CREEP.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.