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Swift Collection of photos creates portrait of an era 

It's likely that the photographs now on exhibit in the Arkansas Studies Institute's Concordia Hall are unlike any that most folks have seen.

click to enlarge TWINS: Their dolls did not reflect their own race.
  • TWINS: Their dolls did not reflect their own race.

It's likely that the photographs now on exhibit in the Arkansas Studies Institute's Concordia Hall are unlike any that most folks have seen. These post-Civil War and early 20th century portraits of African Americans collected by Joshua and Mary Swift of Little Rock are part photography, part drawing. Some add details to enhance the image — a frilly frock on a baby that may have not had such a gown, a necklace on a woman. The photographs were, Joshua Swift said, "the first say-so they had over how they wanted to be presented."

There are no mammies here with white babies, nor denigrating pictures, nor scenes of horror. They are, instead, "society" pictures, as Mary Swift put it, pre-Jim Crow portraits of people who thought that emancipation would bring equality.

The Swifts began collecting the photographs around 1980, when Mary Swift found a couple in a garage (literally) sale in North Little Rock. The photos were of two dapper young men. "We knew they were a rare item" from "an era gone by." They began looking for more photographs, and today have 89 such photos in their collection.

The photographs, with just a few exceptions, are of unidentified people. Because many of the photographs in the collection were found in Arkansas at estate sales and antique shops, they are likely of Arkansans. One photograph, however, the Swifts know to be a Rev. Wright, who was associated with the Mosaic Templars fraternal organization. Another, a 19th century photograph, identifies its subject, Georgian Washington, on the photo itself. The photo came from Louisiana.

Joshua Swift, who is retired from Alcoa, said the exhibition is meant to show the works as a particular art form, thanks to the era and style, but he hopes visitors to the gallery may be able to identify some of their ancestors on the wall.

click to enlarge THE COLLECTORS: Mary and Joshua Smith with the first two portraits they purchased.
  • THE COLLECTORS: Mary and Joshua Smith with the first two portraits they purchased.

The Swifts believe that many of the photographs — none of which were taken past 1940 — were shot by itinerant photographers put out of work by the end of the Civil War. Some are enlargements of tintypes, and have an ethereal quality, but the photographer has carefully drawn in the fuzzier details, outlining hands and feet and adding bits of color here and there. The adult subjects are dignified, backs straight, solemn-faced; "I like the propriety" of the poses, Mary Swift said. The babies are winsome. There is a photograph of two children standing amid tall flowers; brush strokes of watercolor give the photograph the appearance of a Carroll Cloar painting.

Many of the photographs are in their original frames, but the Swifts have found several that were unframed; buyers apparently only wanted the frames and left the photographs behind. Other photographs are behind domed glass, which the Swifts have not been able to replace. One may be of Harriett Tubman, the Swifts believe; they found a photograph in an antique mall in Little Rock and a matching tintype in Pine Bluff.

One photograph is of twin young girls in matching pinafores holding their dolls. The dolls match one another: both are white. There were black dolls in the late 19th and early 20th century, the Swifts said, but they were French and German and very expensive.

There is one painting in the show, though it may have used a photograph as a basis. It places a man's portrait within a peach. It was symbolic, Joshua Swift explained. The man was a peach farmer? a reporter asked. No, Swift said, it's a reference to his skin tone, a source of pride.

The Swifts also have photographs of their own ancestors included in the show, including Joshua Swift's great-grandparents, Annie and Moses Peters, made in Scott, Ark., and Mary Swift's grandfather, Isom Springfield, taken in 1861.

The exhibition, "Photographic Arts: African American Studio Photography from the Joshua and Mary Swift Collection," runs through March 26.

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