In the N.C. Museum of Historys new exhibit Stagville: Black & White, photographer Brenda Scott uses her lens to bring together the past and the present and maybe even the future.
With 64 photos and an installation of video interviews, the exhibit began as a project on the buildings of the Stagville State Historic Site, the Durham plantation that once was home to nearly 900 slaves. The project changed direction when Scott met a descendant of one of the slave families on the Stagville grounds.
She began incorporating archival images of Stagville residents and their children and grandchildren within the new photos. Pictures of pictures, in other words, spanning more than 150 years of time.
Eventually, Scott began photographing present-day descendants as well, as they visited Stagville to explore their family connections, several generations removed. The result is an intriguing strategy of layered imagery that connects past and present with an eye toward the future.
Scott recently spoke about Stagville: Black & White.
Q: How did this project get started?
A: I wanted to do a project on old buildings and the stories behind them. I did a lot on local history in my doctoral work at Oxford, and when I moved back to North Carolina, I thought: I havent done local work in my own hometown. I wanted to connect photos with people and stories. A friend said, Why arent you working in Stagville? I went and got permission the next day from the site manager, and I just started shooting.
I was trying to show the lives of the people just through empty spaces. And it was going pretty well you can get some sense of a place that way. But then one day at the visitors center, I met a descendant of one of the enslaved families at Stagville. That was Angela Russell, and that really changed everything for me.
Q: How so?
A: I realized that what I was really interested in was the people and the stories behind the images, the buildings. She was organizing a family reunion at Stagville. It made me think: If it were my family, would I expect to feel pride where my family was enslaved? Then I thought: These are beautiful buildings, this is a beautiful place. Who built it? Her family.
Angela introduced me to descendants and members of her family to interview. And I started looking at archival pictures of the people who had actually been at Stagville and putting them in the empty spaces. I wanted to connect the people from the past, with people here now, and show how the past connects to the present.
Q: Where did you find the archival photos that you featurein the images?
A: Stagville has a few filing cabinets of drawers just filled with stuff. They have a foundation dedicated to preservation of these materials. Theres also a descendants organization.
Q: Why black-and-white images, instead of color?
A: It goes back to an old photography mentor and an idea that she pounded into us in class, that concept has to drive technique. So conceptually, of course, I am talking about black and white, about race. But also, black and white photography is over 90 percent gray. So its not all black and white.
Q: In your artists statement, you talk about connecting present and past, but also about leaving our legacy for future generations. How does the project speak to that?
A: I want people to think about what were doing now and how will that reflect on us in another 150 years time.
For example and Im not comparing myself to him! but Ansel Adams created these landscapes of incredible beauty, with the idea of getting people to think about environmental issues. He was an environmentalist and very concerned with pollution and so forth. But he drew people in with beauty.
Thats my aesthetic. I want to draw people in with the physical beauty of this place so people will actually look, and spend the time, and think.