Although the woman in the hat is unidentified, Mason and researchers have a suspicion about who she is, but are still trying to nail it down, he said. He hopes they can identify her and say more about her life when a more comprehensive exhibition opens in the fall.
A studio fire in 1912 destroyed the Holsinger Studio’s early business ledgers and some negatives, leaving many people in the portraits unidentified. The library collection, acquired in 1978, comprises approximately 9,000 dry-plate glass negatives and 500 celluloid negatives.
“With the Holsinger Portrait Project, we want to change the way people see our history – and I mean, see it literally and understand it,” said Mason, who is co-director of the project. “The exhibition is a way of telling history that doesn’t start with oppression, but with beauty, style, grace and dignity.”
Nowadays it’s commonplace to share selfies taken with smartphones on social media, but it was a big deal to get a photographic portrait made 100 or so years ago. The African Americans in the Holsinger Studio portraits clearly look like they wanted to show themselves in the best light, as a counterweight to the discriminatory forces leading to Jim Crow laws, restrictions and segregation, Mason said.