Family Day at Museum of the African Diaspora
by Eve Kushner
San Francisco Chronicle
In the 19th century, photography inflicted a certain amount of pain. Cameras were expensive, so few people owned one. Those who wanted portraits had to sit in studios for long periods with their heads clamped so they wouldn’t move. No wonder people were rarely smiling in old-timey portraits.
Photography has come a long way, and the Museum of the African Diaspora is focusing on the big picture. The museum’s current exhibition displays early photographs, such as tintypes and daguerreotypes, as well as photographs on linen, wood and felt. The 90-plus images in the exhibition include depictions of slavery, 20th century civil rights conflicts, African American soldiers and family life.
On Saturday afternoon at the museum, children can experiment with an early photographic technique by making cyanotypes, or blueprints. They can compose images by laying flat objects on chemically treated paper. The museum will provide feathers, but kids can also bring and use their own flat objects. After pressing the objects and paper between sheets of glass, kids will take the assembly outside, exposing it to sunlight. Whatever they’ve covered will remain white. Anything else will soon turn a brilliant lapis lazuli blue. Kids take home whatever they create.
“It’s a simple, fun, rewarding process,” says MoAD education program coordinator Demetrie Broxton. “It’s quick, and you get great results.”
The event is part of the museum’s Family Day, held one Saturday a month to allow kids to engage with the content of exhibitions. The current exhibition – “Double Exposure: African Americans Before and Behind the Camera” – delves into the double-edged relationship that African Americans have had with photography.
In the 19th century, white institutions photographed African Americans with the intention of proving that they were inferior in anatomy and intelligence. In 1900, when Eastman Kodak developed cameras that were relatively cheap (just $1!), photography became widely accessible. Suddenly, African Americans could record the realities of their everyday lives.
“The photos show a more complex view of African Americans than just slaves, laborers and poor people,” says Broxton.
The photos on display show African Americans through the lenses of others and through their own collective lens. Some compositions by contemporary artists (including Gerald Cyrus) allude to works by early African American photographers, such as Roy DeCarava, who captured people as they danced on Harlem streets. And contemporary photographer and artist Carrie Mae Weems has reappropriated old, degrading images of African Americans, suggesting that there’s another history.
1-4 p.m. Sat. Free with museum admission ($10 for adults, free for younger than 12). Education Center, 3rd floor, Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission St., S.F. (415) 358-7200, www.moadsf.org.