Holsinger Studio Portrait Project Packs Up and Hits the Road

June 26, 2023 By Alice Berry, aberry@virginia.edu Alice Berry, aberry@virginia.edu

It may be gone, but “Visions of Progress: Portraits of Dignity, Style, and Racial Uplift,” an exhibition showcasing portraits of Black Charlottesville residents at the University of Virginia’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, is not forgotten.

The portraits in the exhibition, which opened in September and closed Saturday, are not going to be relegated to the archives. Thanks to grants from the Jefferson Trust, 3Cavaliers and Virginia Humanities, the portraits are headed off Grounds and online.

The exhibition received acclaim from national news outlets like PBS and The Washington Post. The portraits displayed depict Central Virginia’s Black residents in the early 20th century in the ways in which they wanted to be seen – with dignity and more than a little style.

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Woman pointing to sign among the exhibit
The exhibition is the most popular one the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library has put on in years, drawing thousands of visitors over its nine-month run. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

“You can’t see Jim Crow and you can’t see oppression in these photos. That’s by design, but it’s also, I think, a great relief to many people who come to this exhibition,” said the exhibition’s chief curator, John Edwin Mason, a UVA associate professor of history.

Making the exhibition accessible was important to Mason and library curator Holly Robertson. The photos brought to light a rarely seen side of Black life before desegregation, but not everyone who wanted to see the exhibition was able to come to Grounds.

“We wanted to make sure that the exhibition does not simply stay on Grounds; it goes out into the world,” Mason said.

Parts of the exhibition will travel to other locations in Central Virginia, like the Nelson Heritage Center in Nelson County and Westminster-Canterbury, a retirement community in Charlottesville. There aren't plans for it to travel outside of the region. Robertson said it's important that the exhibit is local, though she's received requests to take it out of state.

“You get to go to your archive, you find something that is local to your place, a community of people who are special to where you are,” Robertson said.

A room view of portraits included in the exhibition
One of the most valuable parts of putting on the exhibition was welcoming descendants of the portraits’ subjects, library curator Holly Robertson said. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The curators are finalizing a catalog with the portraits that will be published in the fall. It’ll be available for free on the Holsinger Studio Portrait Project website. Attendees of Holsinger Studio events can pick up a hard copy for free, too. The website, designed by UVA’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanties, will feature the Holsinger Studio’s African American portraits as well as biographical information about the people in the photos.

Mason plans to write about Henry Martin, a former UVA janitor and bellringer whose distinguished portrait demands viewers see him as more than just a faithful servant.

The exhibition drew thousands of visitors to Grounds during its nine months in the Special Collections Library. And its run ended on a high note; on June 11, UVA Library and the Holsinger Studio Portrait Project hosted a family event that invited community members to check out the exhibition.

“It’s by far our most popular exhibition in years,” Robertson said.

With Robertson’s office just down the hall from where the portraits are mounted, she was able to overhear some of the visitors’ reactions. They’ve been overwhelmingly positive, especially from people who recognize their ancestors in the photos, she said.

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“It’s so special when descendants come in and you can hear and witness that moment when they see a relative in their portrait on display,” Robertson said. Some even had their photos taken with their ancestors during the family day event.

“Visions of Progress” has also set off a trilogy of special exhibits that look back at Black life in Central Virginia.

On Sept. 13, an exhibition celebrating the centennial of the Harlem Renaissance will open. It will feature contemporary art inspired by poems from that literary scene. Artists from Central Virginia have until July 12 to submit a proposal.

In 2024, the Special Collections Library will put a spotlight on Anne Spencer, a poet and early civil rights activist from Lynchburg.

Media Contact

Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications