Both Sides of the Lens: Photographs by the Shackelford Family, Fayette County, Alabama (1910-1935) will be in the Fourth Floor Exhibition Gallery of the Central Library through Friday, September 14. The exhibition features 40 photographs from this collection of early 20th century glass plate negatives.
The photographs—rich for their visual record of everyday life in rural Alabama—are also remarkable because of the story behind them. Taken by a family of African-American photographers who lived in Covin, Alabama, the images reveal the lives of the photographers as well as those being photographed.
Featuring African Americans and whites who lived in or were traveling through the county, the images illustrate the significance of the photographic experience in the early 20th century and expose the places, events, and possessions valued by people in the community. The photographs are mostly outdoor portraits of families, children, couples, and individuals often posing with an object they held dear—a book, a car, a pocket watch, a gun, or a musical instrument.
The photographs were produced by one or more members of the family of Mitchell and Geneva Shackelford of Fayette County. As large landholders who also owned a general store, the Shackelfords were well known in the county and were prominent members of Covin’s African American community. The couple was instrumental in forming a school and Baptist church in the first two decades of the twentieth century. After Mitchell’s death in 1919, Geneva and her four adult sons continued to farm and accumulate land. “The Shackelford brothers,” as they were called, also owned and operated a saw mill and syrup mill.
The exhibition is curated by Andrew Nelson, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, College Park, whose research on this Archives collection inspired the exhibition. The exhibition’s co-curators are Jim Baggett and Kelsey Bates, Archivist and Assistant Archivist at the Birmingham Public Library. All three curators have been working closely with Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson of the University of Maryland, College Park, an expert on African American material culture. BPL is also working with the premiere expert on Alabama photography, Frances Robb.
The exhibition is made possible by a grant from the Alabama Humanities Foundation, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.