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Random Thoughts About Whatever Comes to Mind

A Researcher's Dream

Haven't posted for months, but there's a reason. It's been a busy summer, writing-wise. I finished Maggie and Me: A Granddaughter's Memoir, to be published on 12/15; ARCs are going out even as I write this - there's a link to the title's website in the QUICK LINKS column of this page if you'd like to hear me talk about the book (the site also incorporates a Readers' Guide and an Online Press Kit). I edited my new mystery in the Art Dodger Series, The Mystery of the Missing Majorette, which is also supposed to be published in the coming quarter. I began a new series of short fiction under the Antiques Are Us name, and have so far finished three segments: The Quilt Hater; Tempest in a Teapot; and Best When Ripe.

The above, however, satisfying as it may be to me as a list of activities explaining why I've rarely seen sunshine in the last three months, isn't the point of this post. Today, I had one of those fun moments known only to those of us blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with the researcher's mindset.

The first thing I do every day is check the BBC News app on my iPad because I figure that's where the scoop about the "end of the world is here" will show up first. This morning, in Features & Analysis, a title turned up that caught my eye: "The photographer who rejected racism." I clicked onto it to find an article about Hugh Mangum, a freethinking North Carolina photographer circa 1890-1922, who rode the train throughout parts of the South photographing all comers, whatever their sex, race, or occupation. The hallmark of Mangum's work was a playful quality rarely seen in photographs of the era. Mangum seems to have had the kind of personality that allowed him to enjoy his subjects and they to enjoy him. He also, clearly, had a lot of one-to-one technique that enabled him to work quickly, which is critical when one is trying to achieve a sense of spontaneity.

It was an interesting article, well-written and illustrated with a series of evocative photographs. As I studied the images, I realized there was something familiar about them. The subjects were different, but the unusual poses and attitudes of some of the sitters are identical to those in a series of photographs I found when helping my husband put together the visuals for his book Winnie and Gurley: The Best-Kept Family Secret. Without going into the reasons why, let's just say that this part of Robert's crowd, the Griffiths, wasn't particularly cheerful. In most photographs, even the children appear glum, even hostile. In this one series, however, they are clearly enjoying themselves. The other unusual thing about the "pleasant series," as I think of it, is how small the images are, no more than an inch high. The series was a puzzle.

Now, having read the BBC article about Mangum, I suspect he may have had something to do with it. He worked with a Penny Picture Camera, which allowed for the taking of very small pictures. The Griffith children, offspring of a prosperous Hanceville, Alabama, merchant and broker, lived with their parents in a big Victorian house near the Hanceville train stop, not far from Cullman, a booming town of the time, just the sort likely to attract an itinerant photographer. The "pleasant series" would have been taken approximately 1904-1905, which fits comfortably within Mangum's years of operation. It may be there were other itinerant photographers using his same techniques; but, if not, I think Hugh Mangum may be the man who got the Griffith kids to smile back in the day. Hats off, Hugh!

If your ancestors lived in the South between 1890 and 1922 and there are tiny photographs in the family archives, you may want to check out Mangum, as it might provide a fun insight into a long-ago day when a visiting photographer pointed a camera at a long-dead relative and said, "Let's have some fun with this."

Finding information isn't difficult. Mangum is hardly a forgotten man. His surviving work - most was lost unfortunately - is held at Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Also, Brooklyn-based photographer Sarah Stacke is writing a book about Mangum, to be co-edited by Margaret E. Sartor, Visiting Lecturer of Public Policy Studies and Research Associate, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke.

Mangum's worth a look, whether you think you have any of his photographs or not. He was a man far in advance of his time, a true social hero.
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