Thursday, September 26, 2019

A Charleston Mystery: Who Did Robert Frank Photograph Downtown 64 Years Ago?
By Robert Behre
Sep 26, 2019
Charleston Post and Courier

Robert Frank, Charleston, South Carolina, 1955
The image from Charleston that was one of 83 pictures that appeared in Robert Frank’s 1959 work, “The Americans.” Robert Frank, via Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

The Charleston photograph was first published more than a half century ago but reemerged this month upon the passing of photographer Robert Frank.

His image shows a young white baby, possibly not even a year old, being held by his African American nanny or “dah,” as many called such caretakers at that time.

Frank took the picture in 1955 and published it four years later in his iconic book, “The Americans,” years before the civil rights movement began bearing fruit, at least with important new federal laws.

The photograph is titled simply, “Charleston, South Carolina,” and the background, while fuzzy, certainly resembles any number of city streets. But the landscape also lacks any defining feature that would help pin down the precise location.

The rest of the image also remains a mystery. Unlike many journalists, Frank often didn’t get names and other information from his subjects.

Since the photo reemerged in the national spotlight, prominently featured in The New York Times’ obituary and elsewhere, The Post and Courier has tried to uncover more about it. Can anyone identify the child? The woman? The street?

It was a search that was both frustrating and revealing, one that showed, as with most big historical questions, research can yield some insights, while other questions seem destined to remain lost to the passing of time.

‘It’s no accident’

Frank’s image occupies a space somewhere between journalism and art.

Sara Arnold, the Gibbes Museum of Art’s director of curatorial affairs, calls Frank’s Charleston “a beautiful image and it brilliantly and poetically captures the paradox of 1950s race relations.”

She notes the 87 images published in “The Americans,” often took a critical look at American democratic ideals.

“The book was controversial at the time of publication both for the camera techniques employed, as well as the subject matter,” she says. “The people in Frank’s photographs were often distracted, lost in thought, or plodding through the mundane and sometimes lonely elements of their daily routines.”

While the woman in the Charleston photo was trusted with the intimate and important responsibility of caring for this baby, who contentedly rests in her arms, she lived in a society that prevented her from sharing a water fountain, Arnold says. And that was not lost on Frank.

“Blurring much of the background, Frank’s lens is focused on the profile of the woman. It seems no accident that Frank sets the woman’s dark skin tone in sharp contrast to her white dress uniform, the white wall she rests against, and the white child she competently and tenderly clutches to her side,” Arnold says.

“She is surrounded by whiteness,” she adds, “and in creating this contrast it is difficult not to think that Frank was alluding to white power structure she was subject to in the Jim Crow South. In this moment captured on film, both the woman and the baby appear lost in their own thoughts, gazing outwardly but in different directions, again perhaps a fortuitous reference to their differing plights.”

‘We lived in a bubble’

In 1955, African American caretakers were quite common, said Angela Williams, an author and instructor who grew up in rural Berkeley County but whose family often socialized downtown.

“South of Broad, almost every white family would have had someone taking care of the children,” she said.

Perhaps part of the lingering fascination with Frank’s photo is that its subjects could have been so many different Charleston children or so many African American women. Williams noted an African American woman once was told by a city police officer that the only black women allowed at the Battery were those accompanying a white child.

Despite these inequalities, the caretaker-child dynamic — however social historians and commentators regard it today — was also a hugely personal one that undoubtedly varied from family to family.

Williams felt so strong about her nanny, a former nurse’s aid named Eva Aiken who lived in her home for almost 20 years, that she wrote a book, “Hush Now, Baby,” to honor her memory. Her subsequent book tour included about 400 events in which she talked and listened about that seemingly idyllic yet troubled time.

“I cannot tell you how many people came up to me afterward and said, ‘Oh I had a Hattie.’ ‘I had a Mabel, and we loved her,’” he said. “I was so surprised by the people who wanted to talk. It was cathartic to talk about the times, especially for me about how ignorant I felt. At the time I was growing up, I did not realize that there was any other stuff going on.”

Williams said she was closer to Eva than to either of her parents. She also wrote her book to rebut the negative image of the relationship portrayed in the popular movie, “The Help,” and to explore her personal discovery of the larger headwinds that women like Eva faced at the time.

“The prologue in my book tells about the agony of discovering what was going on,” Williams said. “We lived in a bubble in the Lowcountry. We really did. It was a lily white world.”

For those who were not raised in that world, the African American nanny-white child dynamic raises a lot of questions. Williams recalls some lectures before groups of northern transplants where she would tell her story, “and their mouths would fall open.”

“The ones who were primarily from the South wanted to share their stories,” she said. “I couldn’t get over how many people really did grow up with someone as their nanny or whatever people chose to call them. It was almost like giving them an opportunity to reach back, and part of my hidden agenda was always to talk about current race relations.”

Her book tour helped open conversations that are sometimes tough to have, Williams said, “and sharing my vulnerability and my guilt about what I experienced after I left and realized what was going on helped people open up about how they didn’t have any idea either. We needed — still do — to have those conversations.”

‘A question about what’s real’

Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, an associate professor with Emory University’s American Studies and African American Studies, is working on a very different book about nannies.

It’s a picture book, expected to be the largest collection of its kind, full of images taken between 1850 and 1950.

The book, “Framing Shadows: Portraits of African American Women with White Children,” includes portraits that reveal “the complex intra-racial and inter-generational intimacy between family members and servants,” according to her university biography.

Wallace-Sanders said too much of the black caretaker-white child relationship has been written from the child’s perspective.

“I see my scholarship as an intervention. This is a rescue mission for me. I’m rescuing them from obscurity,” she said.

The book’s pictures help tell that story from the nanny’s perspective: Each tells a short, unique story of race, gender, class, status and age.

The book is a follow-up to her 2007 work, “Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender and Southern Memory” and shines a light on the African American women and girls whose daily lives revolved around caring for white children. It’s the same territory as Frank’s photo.

“Everything we have learned about women who do this domestic work is this is their job. They may become close to the family. I don’t deny that. They often go to birthday parties, funerals and weddings. There’s a bond that’s still there. That makes sense.”

“But when affection is tied to currency, there’s a question about what’s real,” she added. “You have to ask some additional questions about it.”

‘People who struggled’

A representative of the Pace-MacGill Gallery in New York, which has represented Frank’s work since 1983, said the gallery does not know the identities of those pictured – and doubted that Frank ever recorded their names.

Frank acknowledged that in photographing Americans, he found the least privileged among them the most compelling.

“My mother asked me, ‘Why do you always take pictures of poor people?’” Frank told The New York Times Magazine. “It wasn’t true, but my sympathies were with people who struggled. There was also my mistrust of people who made the rules.”

Even though Charleston can seem like a small town, this isn’t necessarily surprising that no one can identify the woman or child in the photo. In 1950, the city — which at that time was limited to the historic peninsula — had about 70,000 people living in it, according to the census, almost twice as many as the peninsula has today.

Efforts by The Post and Courier to circulate the images around long-time Charleston residents — and even on the Facebook page Charleston History Before 1945 — also didn’t bear fruit.

So, at least for now, the mystery remains. Meanwhile, the picture will live on, as a trigger both to those who remember that era and younger people just learning about relationships between white families and black caregivers so prominent in the Jim Crow South.

And many may form their own opinion about exactly what was going on there. Their opinions won’t necessarily be the same, but they all bear exploring to unravel the mystery of Frank’s iconic portrait. 

No comments: