Provo City Library presents exhibit for Black History Month

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Elizabeth Smith, right, and Sol Harmon, left, discuss the photos exhibited at Provo City Library gallery. (Hannah Petersen)

The Provo City Library is hosting an exhibit for Black History Month that depicts race relations in the 19th century.

The exhibit, which is available until Feb. 28, is titled “Black & White in Black and White: Images of Dignity, Hope and Diversity in America” and is located on the fourth floor of the library.

Provo Library Director Gene Nelson said creating an exhibition space on the library’s fourth floor had always been a dream of his. This exhibition space, known as The Attic at Academy Square, is meant to become a place to create public awareness, according to Nelson.

“Short of BYU and MOA, nobody else brings in exhibits,” he said.

Nelson said he and other librarians strive to help the public know and understand one another more. He said that as this occurs, the better off the world will become.

The awareness that this particular exhibition creates is based on the real-life work of photographer John Johnson, who photographed African American and white residents in his home of Lincoln, Nebraska, between 1910 and 1925. His purpose was to show positive race relations in his time period.

UVU freshman Elizabeth Smith said she has attended a number of library activities and found out about the photo display through a poster. She said she’d enjoyed a number of the photos because they portrayed subjects in a contemporary way and that some images looked as if they could have been taken in the present day.

The photo represented is titled “Mamie Griffin” and is courtesy of the Douglas Keister Collection. (Publicity image from the exhibit supported by California State University)

“I think it’s kind of interesting that none of them (African Americans) are portrayed in a negative light,” Smith said. “If anything they are all portrayed really nicely, and to think about the historical period and the political turmoil that was happening at the time, I think it shows not only that they themselves aren’t in a terrible situation but that he (the photographer) chose to portray them as if it (racism) didn’t exist.”

Smith brought along fellow freshman and friend, Sol Harmon, who specifically referenced a favorite photo titled “Colley and Malone Families” that portrays an African American family. Listed beside the photo was a quote from the father talking about his love for his wife. “It’s kind of a reminder how timeless love is, as cheesy as that sounds,” Harmon said.

Provo Library Community Relations Coordinator Erika Hill said the library worked to obtain the collection from the Exhibit Envoy service. She said Exhibit Envoy told her this particular exhibit is not in circulation most of the year but becomes highly requested from galleries around the country in January and February for promoting Black History Month. She said they were lucky to have the opportunity to present this specific artwork at this time of year.

Hill said she was surprised to find out how difficult it was for early photographers to capture African Americans’ likenesses. Photographers like Johnson had complications in trying to obtain sharp pictures and photographing darker skin tones because of how the light interacted with deeper pigments.

“I always hope to give people a moment of pause; a moment to resituate themselves in the world and find something new and just think for a minute,” she said. “This exhibit in particular deals a lot with representation, which I think is a very contemporary idea in how we portray race in all forms of media.”

She said her favorite photo of the entire exhibit was titled “Boy with Hounds.” She said the African American boy depicted echoed her own experience with her son.

“One of my sons picked his own clothes yesterday and it involved a skeleton shirt and batman pajama pants,” she said. “There’s something of that little undone quality of him (the boy in the photo) that I really really like.”

Harmon said he liked the exhibit’s legacy of hope. “You look at all these people and most of them probably weren’t thinking maybe a hundred years from now they going to be in a museum, that they’re going to be impacting people and changing the world just by living their lives and being part of a photographer’s work,” he said.

The photo represented is titled “Boy with Hounds” and is courtesy of the Douglas Keister Collection. (Publicity image from the exhibit supported by California State University)
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