Challenging race and gender roles, one photo at a time
In the 1920 U.S. Census, 101 black women listed photography as their occupation. It’s a small number, of course, but this number represents 101 women who went against the conventions of their time. As historian Kenya Davis-Hayes writes, professional black women were “at a time when blackness and femininity could easily get in the way of one’s aspirations.” These women were moving beyond prescribed notions of femininity and stepping into lives they had made themselves. Among them was Florestine Perrault Collins. Her work challenged mainstream narratives of race and gender and, as American studies scholar Arthé A. Anthony explains, she was able to serve “as her own boss at a time when most of the few black female photographers were working. with their husbands. as less than equal partners.
Collins’ family was part of New Orleans’ tight-knit black Creole community, which was “defined by family and social networks, Catholicism, occupational and residential patterns, language, and a heritage of freedom.” His father was a bricklayer, a common job for Creole men at the time, and made a good living, Anthony says. However, with rising costs, he was not earning enough to keep his daughter in private school, ending her formal education at fourteen. And when her parents welcomed another baby, Collins, the eldest of six, went to work to help support the growing family.
Collins’ fair skin allowed her to pass as white, and she found work as a photographer’s assistant. As she recalled, “if they thought I was colored, they probably wouldn’t have allowed me to take pictures.” She worked as a clerk and later as a developer for the city’s white photographers. But her biggest change came when she opened her own home studio.
It was no different from other female photographers. Most white female photographers were shooting portraits in home studios, which, as Anthony points out, subverted the idea of working outside the home. These women “maintained the illusion that [they]…were devoted to domestic life, thus complementing patriarchal values. Collins likely chose a home studio for similar reasons. But in another challenge to the system, she eventually opened a studio in the city’s booming black business district, and “quickly gained the confidence to challenge both racial prejudice and traditional views about working.” women”.
Still, some of his biggest challenges were at home. Her first husband was controlling, which limited the kind of work she could do. There were no parades or performances. No gatherings or graduations. “I was married to Eilert Bertrand and had to walk the chalk line,” Collins recalled. Even with these restrictions, she was able to create a thriving business, an achievement that speaks to the era’s struggle for civil rights.
Middle-class pursuits, such as photography, were seen as a way for black Americans to gain a foothold in mainstream American culture. Collins’ beautiful, tasteful portraits of black people countered “deeply held stereotypical assumptions of white people about black people.” Thanks to his marketing and artistry, Davis-Hayes says, Collins was able to compete with “well-known black photographers, and his work was trustworthy for the most important occasions.”
As Anthony explains, Collins’ work helped change the perception of black people, which many hoped would change their treatment. She showed how black people viewed themselves, “constructing self-images of black women and children in opposition to pervasive racial stereotypes that have helped to rationalize racial discrimination and segregation”
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By: Kenya Davis-Hayes
Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 33, no. 2 (winter 2014), p. 88 to 92
University of Illinois Press on behalf of the Immigration & Ethnic History Society
By: Arthé A. Anthony
Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Vol. 43, no. 2 (spring 2002), p. 167–188
Louisiana Historical Association