Aaron Bryant

Curator of Photography and Visual Culture at the National Museum of African American History & Culture
headshot of a man

Courtesy of the National Museum of African American History & Culture

Music Credit: “Eyes on the Prize” performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock, from the film Freedom Song.

<music up>

Jo Reed: Welcome to Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Since its opening on the National Mall in September 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has become the destination point for visitors and residents alike. And little wonder. The striking building with its three inverted pyramids contains the most comprehensive collection of artifacts, photos and media devoted exclusively to telling the African-American story and how that story goes to the heart of American history and culture. This month, the museum opened its first special exhibition, More Than a Picture, a display of more than 150 photos and artifacts that gives a striking visual account of the breadth of African American experiences. The exhibit explores the ways photographs represent moments in history both significant and quotidian—key cultural moments and folks dancing on a street corner or watching a parade. More Than a Picture connects the viewer to particular times and places: from slavery through Jim Crow to Black Lives Matter. And while the stories vary, one message is constant: “See Me; I am Here.”

Aaron Bryant, curator of photography and visual culture at the National Museum of African American History and Culture had the daunting task of co-curating More Than a Picture, and he walked me through how this exhibition came together. Explaining the impetus began with a popular series of photography books published by the museum.

Aaron Bryant: We've published these small books of about 50 to 75 photographs each, and so that was sort of the inspiration. We wanted to find a way to highlight or feature certain images from those books. But at the same time, we wanted to feature images that we would have liked to include in the books, but couldn't. So that's, sort of, where the exhibition started.

Jo Reed: Well, how did you select the images?

Aaron Bryant: Well, in making selections, we wanted to talk about how images are more than just pictures. Obviously, with a photograph, there are so many layers behind the two dimensionality or the surface of the photograph that there are stories. You know, there are real lives that are behind these images, whether it's the life and perspective of the photographer or the subject of the image. We wanted to, sort of, convey the idea that images can tell us so much more about who we are as a nation, as a culture, as a community of people, and how it can represent, not just memory, but history.

Jo Reed: Though, obviously, photographs make up this exhibition, they also play a major role in the museum as a whole and the story that you're telling there. Why do you think that is?

Aaron Bryant: Well, I think, we have to acknowledge that we're very much a visual culture. I think we've always been a visual culture, right? Before there was language, there was semiotics of images and how images conveyed meaning somehow. So throughout the museum, I think we kept to that and acknowledged, particularly today, that images are so important to how we interpret and make meaning of our experiences. So I think that's part of the reason why you would see so many images. I think, in the 21st century, when you think about social media in particular, social media really is about people connecting through images, and so I think that's part of it, too. It just really represents a 21st century form of communication. Which is interesting when you think about, say, during pre-histories, right? Images were really important to communications and then, we go through periods of literacy that are less visual, that may be more oral. And here, we find ourselves today in an era of social media, where we're, sort of, reverting back to visual literacies.

Jo Reed: How extensive is the photography collection at the museum?

Aaron Bryant: We have about 25,000 in our collection. And it covers from 19th century images up to present day, literally, up to images that were created within the past year or so.

Jo Reed: And that's true of the exhibition, More Than a Picture, as well?

Aaron Bryant: Absolutely.

Jo Reed: You know, what I find so fascinating about this is the breadth of the history these photos show from people who are enslaved to the present day. And then they’re taken by famous photographers, celebrated photographers, as well as Uncle Joe, who took a picture of the barbeque. And that’s also true of the people being portrayed. Some are celebrities and some are everyday people doing everyday things.

Aaron Bryant: Right. Well, and that's really what history's all about. I mean, we generally think of history as being made by the well-known and the famous. But I think one of the things that we privilege as historians is the cultures and communities of everyday life and how history is made by everyday people in their everyday lives. When you look at certain movements in history, for example, abolition or even, say, to the very beginnings of this nation and the puritan movement, for example. These were just, in many ways, just everyday people who were taking it upon themselves to empower themselves, to claim their agency to change their lives, and history is really made by everyday people who have made the decision to empower themselves to change their lives. And in the course of changing their lives, they also change the course of history for many of us.

Jo Reed: Is that one of the themes that you had in mind as you put this exhibition together?

Aaron Bryant: Absolutely. And also, as a curator of photography and visual culture, it's something that I always keep in mind with our collection, that it's not just about the well-known, but it's about the every day, and how do you represent every day history some? How do you represent different kinds of histories? We have the general kinds of historiography that's generally told from the top down. But how do you also represent voices from the margins and bring voices from the margins to the center.

Jo Reed: There's a picture that I really would like you to describe. Because hands down, it is my favorite, and it's the “Elks Parade in Harlem” in 1938, and it is an extraordinary image, and not just as an image, but what it says about that time, that place.

Aaron Bryant: Right. It's one of my favorite images, as well, because I think it's so epic in many ways. What we see is folks on the street. It's from an angle from below the waists of the people, and the camera, the lens is actually pointing up towards the top of the series of row houses, and then you have fire escapes all along the outside. And people are lined up all over the fire escapes, as well as on the streets, and they're watching this parade of elks march through. It's in Harlem. It was taken in 1938 by Jack Manning. And what's interesting is the photograph, I believe, was taken for Life magazine and there was a caption that was, to a certain degree, victimizing the people in this parade, how they live in Harlem, they live in tenements, and how they're poor. But the reality is that you don't see that, at all, in the image.

Jo Reed: Oh, my God...

Aaron Bryant: Yeah, it's really interesting how the caption creates this idea of victimization, in many ways, but what you actually see in the photograph, or at least what I see, is not victimization or people who are poor or struggling, but people who are celebrating. There's a sense of empowerment in agency, and...

Jo Reed: And pride.

Aaron Bryant: And absolute pride. Yeah, absolutely.

Jo Reed: It's so interesting, because we don’t see in that picture the people who are in the parade itself. It really is the spectators.

Aaron Bryant: Right.

Jo Reed: And the street is jammed.

Aaron Bryant: Yeah. And the thing that I think is so astonishing about this photograph is it's so epic. It's almost like a scene from some grand opera or something. It looks more like an opera set and it's, kind of, unreal to think that communities in any part of the country, in Harlem or anywhere else in the country, really looked like this. And just a sense of pride, to use your term, and joy and celebration is just absolutely astonishing, and how everyone wanted to participate in this parade in some way.

Jo Reed: You know, what I love about it, is just remembering a time, as you said, when people would flock to the street because their community had this celebration.

Aaron Bryant: Well, yeah, and of course, that's the photographer's perspective, isn't it? It's about celebrating the community and how the community is really epicenter of these parades. The community and the feeling of pride and joy and celebration, and shared purpose, really, is at the center of what makes a parade so astonishing. It's not just shared purpose, but a shared moment in time that all of these people on the street have in common. And yeah, it's one of my favorite photos, for that reason.

Jo Reed: Mm-hm.

Aaron Bryant: Because it shows how community, culture, and history really does require all of us coming together to celebrate who we are, to celebrate our shared purpose and to celebrate our commonality. So whether it's just a neighborhood in Harlem or people across the nation, for me, history, culture, and community really is about all of us coming together to celebrate, and I think a lot of our photos speak to that.

Jo Reed: And that's part of the theme that weaves through this exhibition. Tell me how you organized it thematically.

Aaron Bryant: Well, we thought about, with so many photos, whether looking at the images from the books that we've published or thinking about 25,000 photographs in a collection. We thought about its—these images and how they relate, specifically, to the mission and the vision of the museum…

Jo Reed: And remind us what it is, just in case listeners don't know.

Aaron Bryant: Right. We thought about how the museum is divided. So if you come to the museum, we have, really, three major exhibitions spaces. We have the history galleries, which are on the concourse levels. We have our community section, which is on the third floor of the museum. And then we have culture, which is on the fourth floor of our museum. And so we thought about the photographs in that context. How do we talk about these images in the context of history? How do we talk about them in the context of community? And which images best represent culture? So thinking about it through that lens—no pun intended—really helped us to begin to interrogate these images. In many ways, images can represent all three. But then, we had to make a decision. My co-curator, Michèle Gates Moresi and I, we thought about what was more important in terms of the subject matter captured by the image. Does it say more about community? Does it say more about culture? Or does it represent history in some way? Well, in order to answer that question, we had to then begin to think about definitions for those terms. So essentially, in very essentialist terms, I suppose, agency and empowerment for history, identity and expression for culture, and a sense of belonging and shared purpose would represent community.

Jo Reed: And there's also a real drive to put these photos in context. Both with their captions and in the way they’re hung. Tell me how you approached this?

Aaron Bryant: Michele and I approached these images with the idea of semiotics or visual literacy, and so context perspective, how the photographer approaches the subject matter. How does the subject, or how might the subject see themselves. And then, the perspective of a viewer, you know, how are we approaching the photograph as we look at it outside of a caption? And so that was part of the interrogation, as well, not just categorizing but looking specifically at the different perspectives and how they might be reflected in the image. And so how do we, then, convey context, either through label text or how images are juxtaposed to one another.

Jo Reed: Sort of, in conversation with each other?

Aaron Bryant: Right. We created a visual discourse. And I've been a curator, a visual arts curator for some time, and for me, visual discourse is really important. It's not just about the individual photo, but the photo seen within a particular context. How does the meaning of this photo or your interpretation of the photo change if you knew the caption? What new perspectives might that caption bring to your interpretation? Likewise, how might the interpretation of this photo change if we put it next to another photo? So it's not just about the choice of photos, but how we design the space and how we created visual discourses throughout a particular space.

Jo Reed: Can you give me an example?

Aaron Bryant: Yeah. For example, you could be looking at Devin Allen's photo that was on the cover of Time magazine, of the uprisings in Baltimore, the unrest in Baltimore. And while you're looking at that, next to it is the Karales image of the procession and it's that well-known image of marchers coming down a hill.

Jo Reed: And that’s the picture of the march from Selma to Montgomery.

Aaron Bryant: Yes. Again, another epic image where you have this very operatic thematic kind of cloud overhead and you see this procession of people walking down a hill. So, you know, what are these two images next to one another, what are they saying about protests and the evolution of protests? Well, you look over your right shoulder or right behind you and there is a sign that says, "We demand an end to police brutality." So people might assume that that's part of a Black Lives Matter movement. But what may not realize until they go up to the protest sign and read the label, is that the protest sign was, actually, from a 1963 march, and so there's a connection between the Devin Allen image and directly behind you this protest sign from 1963. We have a photo below the police brutality placard and in that photo is the actual placard from the March on Washington from 1963. So now, we have a discourse between this photograph, "We demand an end to police brutality," and then the Devin Allen photograph of a barrage of police officers chasing this lone man with a bandanna, to show a conversation that's happening between this image in 1963 and this image that was taken in 2015. We wanted to create an exhibition where, in order to get certain things, you had to come back more than once. You had to see it more than once.

Jo Reed: Well, as is true with the whole museum.

Aaron Bryant: Yeah, which is absolutely true of the entire museum. And to be able to treat certain images with nuance, it took a while. It took a lot of thinking, as opposed to just, sort of, putting photographs on a wall and saying, "Okay. We've decorated the space with images. Come in and see it." We really wanted to spend some time in creating nuance so that there's this conversation happening from beginning to end, between every single photo.

Jo Reed: Well, in "Double Exposure," which is the multi volume series of books that you put together based on the museum’s collection, you have an entire book in that series focused on African Americans in the military. Tell me why you chose to devote a book to the military, and the significance of having photographs of African-American service members in this exhibition, as well.

Aaron Bryant: Yeah, well, you know, at the heart of the exhibition, as with, I think, all of our exhibits. You know, this whole idea that we're all Americans and this is American History, and throughout the history of the nation, African Americans have fought for defining themselves as Americans in their role as part of this country, and how our history throughout those struggles has really been a reflection of American History. When you walk into the exhibition, you'll see a camera on a podium, a circular podium, and right above the camera, along with a number of other images, but the very first image you might see would be a photograph that was taken by James Karales of a young man, and behind him is the American flag waving, which is another one of my favorite images. Well, this whole idea that this is America's history and you're about to walk into a conversation about what it means to be American. So with that said, the military images were really important to us to include because that's part of that diversity. That reflects who we are as a nation, that we were also people serving in wars to defend our nation's democracy, that we've been a part of every part of America's history and we've been instrumental in shaping that history, as well. So the military images become really important and hitting that point home.

Jo Reed: Yeah, one image is of a Gold Star Mother. Gold Star Mothers are mothers whose children have been killed in combat. You can see the gold star in the window and she's staring out of the window, and it's a very quiet picture, but just heartbreaking. And you know, when it was taken, it was taken in the '40s in this era of great segregation and a lot of racial prejudice, and yet, she gave her child.

Aaron Bryant: Yeah, absolutely. That's a Teenie Harris photo, and yeah, it is pretty poignant, and we have it, actually, facing a photograph of servicemen giving the Double "V" sign. So those two images together say something about the problematic relationship of just being willing to die and to defend democracy, even in times when you don't necessarily benefit or reap all of the benefits or the advantages, the full advantages, of citizenship yourself, that willingness to sacrifice to protect it. So we have these two photos together to, sort of, make that commentary, to a certain degree that you have people who have made considerable sacrifice for America and its democracy, even when they weren't really receiving all the advantages.

Jo Reed: Let me ask you this. Are you, at all, surprised at the level and the depth of the interest in the museum, which has been mind-blowing in how many people want to come? How many have come so far?

Aaron Bryant: Oh, gosh...

Jo Reed: Well over a million?

Aaron Bryant: Yeah.

Jo Reed: A million three.

Aaron Bryant: Yeah. <laughs> Yeah, and people are still trying to get passes to come in. I would say that I'm not surprised. Part of the reason I became a curator is because I was so much—you know, I'm just a regular schmo, and I was interested in the stuff. It wasn't like I was some intellectual type that wanted to spend my life doing research on objects and, particularly, photographs. I'm just a regular schmo who—

Jo Reed: <laughs>

Aaron Bryant: —loved history and loved learning as much as I could about my past and my culture and communities that were like mine and different from mine, and I think we all want that, to explore and engage our humanity that way. I became a curator to, sort of, address that need, but I knew that there were lots of people who weren't curators who still had the same need to learn something about their past and how to make sense out of their lives in the context of a larger history.

Jo Reed: It's interesting going through that museum, watching people look at the exhibits, which I've done, and it's very moving. It's extremely moving.

Aaron Bryant: Yeah. Well, even with our exhibition, people who came in and they cried.

Jo Reed: You see that a lot in that museum.

Aaron Bryant: Yeah, you see it a lot in the museum because—and I think part of what we do is, it's really important to us that everyone be able to see themselves or a part of themselves in all of the displays. And so people are moved by that because, for the first time, they feel like they're part of a national story.

Jo Reed: That they're being seen.

Aaron Bryant: That they're being seen, they're being heard, and they're considered a part of what makes this nation great, I think. There have been times of conflict and confrontation, but in the end, you have to acknowledge that we're all a part of this country and we're all a part of this history.

Jo Reed: Let’s talk about photography as an art form of the people, as a democratic art form.

Aaron Bryant: Well, it's been that argument since the very beginning of photography's history and over the course of its evolution that has always been the issue, that it is so democratic. That in terms of being in a space, particularly a gallery, or part of an art collection, you have your high art, but then you have photography, which is really the democratic art, in many ways, and has never, to a certain degree, been validated throughout art history. One of the things I like about photography is that it does have all of those complexities and it is so democratic. One of my favorite photographers now is Devin Allen. I'm from Baltimore. I still live in Baltimore, and then, I have this young guy, Devin Allen, from Baltimore—who’s from Baltimore—

Jo Reed: How old is he? Is he 22?

Aaron Bryant: Oh, well, he might be 29, now. But when—

Jo Reed: Oh.

Aaron Bryant: —he took—yeah, when he took that photograph that ended up on the cover of Time magazine, he was about 27 and had only been shooting photography for about two years, at that point. But the guy's genius. I mean, he just has a knack. He has this, sort of like I always describe, there are people who have perfect pitch. Well, there are people who have perfect vision or have a perfect eye, to a certain degree, and we may not recognize them because they don't always get a camera put in their hand, and I think he's one of those folks. What is great about that is the democracy there is not just photography, because it can become the voice of the unheard, in many ways. But the democratizing process of social media, you don't have to be in a gallery to be seen. You can put your images up online and it can get an audience, and that's what happened to Devin Allen. So there was such a democratization of photography and the field there that was, sort of, groundbreaking.

Jo Reed: That's what's so interesting. It's not like, oh, he became known when he was on Time magazine. No. He actually was on Time magazine and he was very well known.

Aaron Bryant: Yeah. Because by that time—and it happened in a matter of, maybe, a week, you know, that his images were—

Jo Reed: That they were shooting around.

Aaron Bryant: Yeah, everywhere. They were everywhere, all over the world, being exchanged and uploaded on sites of the very famous to, you know, regular folks like me were looking at his images and discovering his images for the first time.

Jo Reed: Why is art important in the everyday lives of people?

Aaron Bryant: I think it goes back to, again, this whole idea of democratization that art becomes the voice of the unheard. You know, I think about the histories, particularly of African Americans, and how art, music, through Negro spirituals or the visual arts, when you think about some of the early painters, like Horace Pippin. But more specifically, the everyday folks, the folk art of the formerly enslaved and the enslaved. How music, dance, visual art, all of those things really became a voice for people who might've been voiceless, a way of being seen and heard and, sort of, expressing who they were as a community or as individuals. So it's always been important as a language, and I guess that goes back, again, to the earlier part of our conversation, even in pre-history, art was a way that people communicated and said, "I am—" What is it the Cartesian— "I think, therefore I am." I've always said that art was a way that people said, "I paint, therefore I am." "I sing, therefore I am." "I dance, therefore I am." Art becomes a way of singing, dancing, and painting yourself into being, and painting your community into some sort of acknowledgement and recognition.

Jo Reed: And there we'll leave it. Aaron, thank you so much. I really—I do appreciate you coming in, and bravo. That’s—it's a marvelous exhibit.

Aaron Bryant: Well, thank you very much. I really appreciate it and—

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Aaron Bryant: —hopefully, folks can—if you have passes, you get into the museum and see all the exhibitions, including the photo exhibition.

Jo Reed: Yeah, and just briefly, let's say somebody is coming to Washington or they live in Washington, there are some same day passes, not very many.

Aaron Bryant: Absolutely. You can check online, say, 6:30 in the morning. That's one way to get same day passes. And then, also, around 1:00 p.m. every single day, you can line up outside the front of the museum, which is the side of the museum facing the Washington Monument and the National Mall. You can line up outside and they often have same day passes available that time, as well.

Jo Reed: Okay. Good. It's a museum everybody needs to go and see, often.

Aaron Bryant: Yeah. Yeah, not too shabby. We did okay—

Jo Reed: Not too sh—

Aaron Bryant: —with it, didn't we? <laughs>

Jo Reed: You did better than okay with that. Thank you. What a treasure.

Aaron Bryant: Well, thank you very much.

Jo Reed: Thank you.

That’s Aaron Bryant, curator of photography and visual culture at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. To find out more about the museum, go to nmaahc.si.edu. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

<music up>

Transcript available shortly.

Photographs that illuminate history, community and culture.