In the fall of 2008, while photographer and Rochester Institute of Technology visiting faculty member Wendel White was researching images associated with historical sites, he came across an object that would profoundly change his work to come. White discovered a preserved lock of Frederick Douglass’ hair in the Rush Rhees Special collections Library at the University of Rochester, driving him to begin Manifest, a comprehensive ongoing body of work documenting the relics of the United States’ brutal history towards Blacks in America.
Manifest, published recently by Chroma Publications, captures various artifacts of slavery, emancipation and the civil rights movement in the United States from archives in public and private collections throughout the country. This includes diaries, historical photographs, slave collars, human hair, souvenirs and various other objects, many with deep layers of pain attached. The work also includes objects that, as White describes, hold “simply quotidian representations of daily life from the history of the of the African American community.” White is driven by his fascination with the powerful, ghostly residue that coats these objects, transcending time, history, and future generations. While White believes that every object in these various archives has potential to be impactful, his selection process narrows on objects that convey a particular sense of time.
The 4x5 view camera is a vital tool to communicating this sense of time, combining a serialized approach with selective, shallow focus. This leads to images that are uniquely scientific, and profoundly emotive. “Early in the creation of images for this portfolio,” says White, “I became interested in the idea that the photographs would simultaneously reveal and withhold information about the objects.” The camera allows White to meticulously direct the plane of focus, guiding viewers’ gaze and ultimately controlling what is known about each particular subject. “These images are particularly well suited to folding time;” says White, “bringing the past and the present into a shared/ambiguous space within the image.”
For White, each image, whether they are direct evidence of brutality, or seemingly commonplace objects, serve as a constant conversation between America’s painful history, and its legacy on the present. “Response to the work has been very positive,” says White, “although the experience of viewing the work evokes a sense of mourning for the centuries represented by these objects. Even images of the enfranchisement of Black Americans at various historical moments are representations of a painful sense of loss in the context of the contemporary landscape.”
Bio: Wendel A. White was born in Newark, New Jersey and grew up in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. He was awarded a BFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York and an MFA in photography from the University of Texas at Austin. White taught photography at the School of Visual Arts, NY; The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, NY; the International Center for Photography, NY; Rochester Institute of Technology; and is currently Distinguished Professor of Art at Stockton University. His work has received various awards and fellowships including a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in Photography, three artist fellowships from the New Jersey State Council for the Arts, a photography grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, and a New Works Photography Fellowship from En Foco Inc. His work is represented in museum and corporate collections including: the New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, NJ; En Foco, New York, NY; Rochester Institute of Technology, NY; Museum of Fine Art, Houston, TX; Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, IL; Haverford College, PA; Johnson and Johnson, New Brunswick, NJ; Chase Manhattan Bank; the Paul R. Jones Collection of African American Art at University of Delaware; Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University, WI; and the NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NY.