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Photographer as Subject

Henry P. Moore (American, 1833–1911) | Negroes (Gwine to de Field), Hopkinson's Plantation, Edisto Island, South Carolina | 2005.100.1137

Henry P. Moore (American, 1833–1911). Negroes (Gwine to de Field), Hopkinson's Plantation, Edisto Island, South Carolina, 1862. Albumen silver print from glass negative; 6 x 8 1/16 in. (15.2 x 20.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gilman Collection, Museum Purchase, 2005 (2005.100.1137)

Sometimes, in discrete moments of boredom-induced reflection, I begin to think about why certain things have survived from the past and others haven't. I wonder whether it is through sheer dumb luck that some artworks are preserved while others are lost, and whether the creators of the surviving works had any idea that their work would last for so long and be seen by so many eyes. For every Diary of Anne Frank and Jackson Pollock found in a thrift shop, there could be a thousand more pieces of art still undiscovered, and perhaps even more irrevocably lost. When I first saw the Civil War photograph above, I immediately wondered whether the photographer Henry P. Moore had any inclination that this picture would not only survive but go on display at the Metropolitan Museum.

What was Moore's intention? Pure documentation? Photographic beauty? Well, actually, he achieved both. Frankly, the photograph is great looking; the contrast of the subjects' clothing against the trees, the milky sky, and the organic shadows on the building are all striking. As a historical document, the photograph is pretty fantastic as well; the former slaves look directly into the camera, holding the poses of everyday life but with such unearthly stillness that the image looks vaguely surreal. How many other shots of this scene did Moore take? Was he proud of this one, or did he dislike it? I think the most compelling part of historical photographs is that they tell as much about the photographer as the subject. The artist is as thought provoking as his creation.

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