Portrait with Chair, ca. 1910

Michael Francis Blake, Duke Digital Repository. Click to enlarge

This dignified portrait of an older African American woman comes from the studio of the photographer Michael Francis Blake in Charleston, South Carolina. According to the records at Duke University, most of his customers were black.  The studio was apparently a modest affair with a plain backdrop. The wooden chair pictured above is often the only prop.

I’ve changed the color of photo and darkened it a little so you can see more of the detail of this older woman’s clothing.  Duke gives the approximate date range for the photo as between 1910 and 1918. Her shirtwaist and skirt combination were standard apparel for American women of all ages and races in 1910. By 1918, it would have been out of fashion.

The skirt appears to have six gores, a common shape.  Her white shirt has a high collar and what looks like a lace insert in the front.  It’s hard to tell because of imperfections in the photo.  It’s also hard to judge whether or not it buttons down the front.

For me, this portrait is an example of the power of “less is more.”  She wears the simplest of all outfits. Her accessories are also quite simple, including a beautiful belt buckle, a two stand necklace, and drop earrings.  But these minimal details combined together create real elegance.

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2 Responses to Portrait with Chair, ca. 1910

  1. The Two Nerdy History Girls just shared a link to a new photography exhibit with hundreds of turn-of-the-century photos, called “Rediscovering an American Community of Color: The Photographs of William Bullard” at the Worcester Art Museum, New Jersey. The best part is that the people in the photos were identified, and students at Clark University were able to trace their family trees. So often we wish we knew more about women like this one; in the case of Worcester, we can! http://twonerdyhistorygirls.blogspot.com/2018/02/rediscovering-american-community-of.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+TwoNerdyHistoryGirls+%28Two+Nerdy+History+Girls%29

  2. Robert Moeller says:

    I wonder if the chair is there to keep her steady for what was probably a long exposure.

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