20130314-191043.jpgThere is currently a jewel of an exhibition at the California African- American Museum (CAAM). Why a jewel? Because though it is small, the more one looks at it, the more depths there are to see.

The exhibition, which was put together over three months using images downloaded from a Library of Congress collection, does at least two things very well indeed. In terms of race and class it describes a more complex picture of mid-19th century America than is usually projected into the public realm, and it offers an example of what I’ll call “publicness,” in excellent operation.
“People tend to think that black soldiers were all escaped slaves,” said Edward Garcia, the curator, designer, and primary fabricator and installer of African-American Military Portraits from the American Civil War. “But these photographs represent a cross-section of American society. ”

Take, for example, Pvt. John Sharper’s carte de visite. As with all of the exhibition’s portraits, it is reproduced twice: facsimiles of the small originals are mounted beside enlargements. In Pvt. Sharper’s case both prints depict a slim young man standing at attention in a military encampment. In the smaller of the two, he looks like a giant. Enlarged, his wide-apart eyes and sweet smile become visible. As does the photographer’s stand that’s keeping him still, and a painted backdrop of tents and cannon, the small scale of which causes him to loom.

A text explains that  Sharper was born in New York and had been a printer before he enlisted in the 14th Rhode Island (Colored) Heavy Artillery Regiment when he was 22 years old.  As Ed Garcia pointed out, the trade of printer required not only education and a high degree of literacy, but also the capital (or inheritance) to get a business started.

Read more: Janet Owen Driggs KCET

American civil warCalifornia african american museumCultureHeroes

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