Thomas Jefferson’s Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Great Grandson Poses for a Presidential Portrait

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…  —Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States of America

He was a brilliant man who preached equality, but he didn’t practice it. He owned people. And now I’m here because of it. —Shannon LaNier, co-author of Jefferson’s Children: The Story of One American Family

Many of the American participants in photographer Drew Gardner's ongoing Descendants project agreed to temporarily alter their usual appearance to heighten the historic resemblance to their famous ancestors, adopting Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s lace cap and sausage curls or Frederick Douglass’ swept back mane.

Actor and television presenter Shannon LaNier submitted to an uncomfortable, period-appropriate neckwrap, tugged into place with the help of some discreetly placed paperclips, but skipped the wig that would have brought him into closer visible alignment with an 1800 portrait of his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Thomas Jefferson.




“I didn’t want to become Jefferson,” states LaNier, whose great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, Sally Hemings, was written out of the narrative for most of our country’s history.

An enslaved half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife, Martha, Hemings was around sixteen when she bore Jefferson’s first child, as per the memoir of her son, Madison, from whom LaNier is also directly descended.

She has been portrayed onscreen by actors Carmen Ejogo and Thandie Newton (and Maya Rudolph in an icky Saturday Night Live skit.)

But there are no photographs or painted portraits of her, nor any surviving letters or diary entries. Just two accounts in which she is described as attractive and light-skinned, and some political cartoons that paint an unflattering picture.

The mystery of her appearance might make for an interesting composite portrait should the Smithsonian, who commissioned Gardner’s series, seek to entice all of LaNier’s female and female-identifying cousins from the Hemings line to pose.

While LaNier was aware of his connection to Jefferson from earliest childhood, his peers scoffed and his mother had to take the matter up with the principal after a teacher told him to sit down and stop lying. As he recalled in an interview:

When they didn’t believe me, it became one of those things you stop sharing because, you know, people would make fun of you and then they’d say, “Yeah, and I’m related to Abraham Lincoln.”

His family pool expanded when Jefferson’s great-great-great-great-grandson, journalist Lucian King Truscott IVwhose fifth great-grandmother was Martha Jeffersonissued an open invitation to Hemings’ descendants to be his guests at a 1999 family reunion at Monticello.

It would be another 20 years before the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Monticello tour guides stopped framing Hemings’ intimate connection to Jefferson as mere tattle.

Now visitors can find an exhibit dedicated to her life, both online and in the recently reopened house-museum.

Truscott lauded the move in an essay on Salon, published the same week that a yearbook photo of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam in blackface posing next to a figure in KKK robes began to circulate:

Monticello is committing an act of equality by telling the story of slave life there, and by extension, slave life in America. When my cousins in the Hemings family stand up and proudly say, we are descendants of Thomas Jefferson, they are committing an act of equality…. The photograph you see here is a picture of who we are as Americans. One day, a photograph of two cousins, one black and one white, will not be seen as unusual. One day, acts of equality will outweigh acts of racism. Until that day, however, Shannon and I will keep fighting for what’s right. And one day, we will win.

Watch a video of Jefferson descendant Shannon Lanier’s session with photographer Drew Gardner here.

See more photos from Gardner’s Descendents project here.

Read historian Annette Gordon-Reed's New York Times op-ed on the complicated Hemings-Jefferson connection here.

via Petapixel

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Rare Smile Captured in a 19th Century Photograph

Just look at this photo. Just look at this young girl’s smile. We know her name: O-o-dee. And we know that she was a member of the Kiowa tribe in the Oklahoma Territory. And we know that the photo was taken in 1894. But that smile is like a time machine. O-o-dee might just as well have donned some traditional/historical garb, posed for her friends, and had them put on the ol’ sepia filter on her camera app.

But why? What is it about the smile?

For one thing, we are not used to seeing them in old photographs, especially ones from the 19th century. When photography was first invented, exposures could take 45 minutes. Having a portrait taken meant sitting stock still for a very long time, so smiling was right out. It was only near the end of the 19th century that shutter speeds improved, as did emulsions, meaning that spontaneous moments could be captured. Still, smiling was not part of many cultures. It could be seen as unseemly or undignified, and many people rarely sat for photos anyway. Photographs were seen by many people as a "passage to immortality" and seriousness was seen as less ephemeral.




Presidents didn’t officially smile until Franklin D. Roosevelt, which came at a time of great sorrow and uncertainty for a nation in the grips of the Great Depression. The president did it because Americans couldn’t.

Smiling seems so natural to us, it’s hard to think it hasn’t always been a part of art. One of the first thing babies learn is the power of a smile, and how it can melt hearts all around. So why hasn’t the smile been commonplace in art?

Historian Colin Jones wrote a whole book about this, called The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century Paris, starting with a 1787 self-portrait by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun that depicted her and her infant. Unlike the coy half-smiles as seen in the Mona Lisa, Madame Le Brun’s painting showed the first white, toothy smile. Jones says it caused a scandal--smiles like this one were undignified. The only broad smiles seen in Renaissance painting were from children (who didn’t know better), the filthy plebiscite, or the insane. What had happened? Jones credits the change to two things: the emergence of dentistry over the previous hundred years (including the invention of the toothbrush), and the emergence of a “cult of sensibility and politeness.” Jones explains this by looking at the heroines of the 18th century novel, where a smile meant an open heart, and not a sarcastic smirk:

Now, O-o-dee and Jane Austen’s Emma might have been worlds apart, but so are we--creatures of technology, smiling at our iPhones as we take another selfie--from that Kiowan girl in the Fort Sill, Oklahoma studio of George W. Bretz.

via PetaPixel

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

How the “First Photojournalist,” Mathew Brady, Shocked the Nation with Photos from the Civil War

In her 1938 essay “Three Guineas,” Virginia Woolf wondered “whether when we look at the same photographs we feel the same things.” Woolf half-hoped that grisly images of the dead from the Spanish Civil War might help put an end to the spreading global conflict. She recognized, writes Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others, photography’s ability “to vivify the condemnation of war” and to “bring home, for a spell, a portion of its reality to those who have no experience of war at all.”

Mathew Brady, the man credited as the “father of photojournalism,” had no such lofty ambitions at the beginning of the Civil War. At first, he offered to photograph soldiers before they left for the battlefield, to preserve their pre-war image for posterity should they not return. (He cynically advertised his services with the line, “You cannot tell how soon it may be too late.”) Brady was already a successful photographer and had taken portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, and Edgar Allan Poe.

Having studied under Samuel Morse, who brought the daguerreotype technique to the U.S., Brady opened his first studio in New York in 1844 and became highly sought after. He might have safely waited out the war in the city, operating a thriving business, but, as he remembered later, “I had to go. A spirit in my feet said ‘Go,’ and I went.” Brady took his petition all the way to Lincoln, who approved it on the condition that Brady finance the documentation himself. “At his own expense,” notes the American Battlefield Trust, “he organized a group of photographers and staff to follow the troops as the first field-photographers.”

Soon after, “in 1862, Brady shocked the nation when he displayed the first photographs of the carnage of the war in his New York Studio in an exhibit entitled ‘The Dead of Antietam.’ These images, photographed by Alexander Gardner and James F. Gibson, were the first to picture a battlefield before the dead had been removed and the first to be distributed to a mass public.” The New York Times responded as Woolf would seventy-six years later, writing of the photos:

Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.

Shocked the nation may have been, but the war dragged on three more years. Brady and his team not only photographed the dead—they captured everything from hot-air balloons to pontoon bridges to breastworks to winter huts and wagon trains. Brady went bankrupt funding the making of over 10,000 plates, many of them harrowing depictions of the war’s brutality, before the U.S. government finally bought them for $25,000.

The Public Domain Review has another harrowing collection of Brady’s daguerreotypes—portraits he took before the war that have decayed and distorted, as have a great many of Brady’s photos of the war dead. These images “were extremely sensitive to scratches, dust, hair, etc, and particularly the rubbing of the glass cover if they glue holding it in place deteriorated.” Despite photographers’ promises to the contrary, “this fixing" of the image for posterity "was far from permanent.” See more of Brady’s Civil War photographs at the National Archives.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Emotional Journey into the Heart of August Sander’s Iconic Photograph, “Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance”

The portrait is your mirror. It’s you.August Sander

A picture is worth a thousand words, and compelling portraits that speak eloquently to a critical moment in history often earn many more than that.

Author John Green’s thoughtful Art Assignment investigation into Three Farmers on Their Way to a DanceAugust Sanders’ 1914 photograph, taps into our need to interpret what we’re looking at.

The descriptive title (the piece is alternatively referred to as Young Farmers) offers some clues, as does the date.




The subjects’ youth and location—a remote village in the German Westerwald—suggest, correctly as it turns out, that they would soon be bound for what Green terms “another dance,” WWI.

Green has learned far more about the people in his favorite photo since he covered it in a 2-minute segment for his vlogbrothers channel below.

Much of the shorter video’s narration carries over to the Art Assignment script, but this time, Green has the help of “a community of problem solvers” who contributed research that fleshed out the narrative.

We now know the young farmers' identities, actual occupations, what they did in the war, and their eventual fate.

Ditto their connection to photographer Sanders, who lugged his equipment on foot to the remote mountain path the friends would be traveling in finery made possible by the Second Industrial Revolution.

A consummate storyteller, Greene makes a meal out of what he has learned.

It would provide the basis for a helluva book…though here another author has beaten Green to the punch. Richard Powers’ novel, also titled Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, was a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist in 1985.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Here latest project is an animation and a series of free downloadable posters, encouraging citizens to wear masks in public and wear them properly. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Nikon Offers Free Online Photography Courses in April

A quick heads up. Through the end of April, Nikon has made its curriculum of online photography courses free. Normally priced at $15-$50 per course, this 10-course offering covers Fundamentals of Photography, Dynamic Landscape Photography, Macro Photography, Photographing Children and Pets, and more. Sign up for the courses here.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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via The Verge

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David Bowie’s Rise as Ziggy Stardust Documented in a New 300-Page Photo Book

Great rock photographers of the seventies often captured their subjects at their moodiest, as in Pennie Smith’s pensive tour photos of the Clash, or Kevin Cummins’ stark, sometimes explosive photos of Joy Division. These were bands best shot in black and white. Punk looked back to the rock of the fifties in its high-contrast simplicity. But the early seventies belonged to glam—or, more accurately, belonged to Ziggy Stardust, a character who demanded to be captured in full-color.

Mick Rock was just the photographer to frame the alien space rock opera in brilliant reds, greens, and blues. Ziggy was several parts T-Rex swagger and riffage, Sun Ra outer-space persona, Lindsay Kemp kabuki mime, and Bauhaus-inspired costuming.




Getting all of this in his shots of Bowie as Ziggy earned Rock the nickname “the man who shot the seventies.” His “career took off alongside Bowie’s,” writes Kristen Richard at Mental Floss, “and between 1972 and 1973, Rock was the musician’s go-to photographer and videographer.”

More than that, Rock is almost as responsible for Ziggy Stardust's rise as Bowie himself, given the way his photos spread the mythos through print media of the time and became iconic digital images that still define Bowie’s career. When we think of Ziggy Stardust, it’s more than likely we are thinking of an image shot by Mick Rock. Bowie’s “creative partner” compiled his photographs in 2015, “with Bowie’s blessing," and they will soon be published in a new, 300-page book by Taschen.

“You’ll find photographs of Bowie both on stage and behind the scenes,” Richard notes, “giving fans an up-close look at the transformative performer’s life on the road as he honed his daring new persona.” That persona upended what it meant to be a rock star, and opened doors for others to push into new performative territory. “Rock’s glam imagery toyed with the idea of masculinity,” writes Christopher Mosley of a recent exhibition in Dallas. For example, the photographer “avoided a tough-guy image with the group Queen by encouraging singer Freddie Mercury to pose in a manner similar to that of an old still of German silent film star, Marlene Dietrich.”

Neither Mercury nor Bowie needed permission to challenge rock’s heteronormativity, but Rock drew out of them the perfect poses to turn their stage personas into superheroes. No rock star before Bowie had ever looked so gorgeously otherworldly, an image we remember thanks in large part to Mick Rock. Order a copy of The Rise of David Bowie, 1972-1973 here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Photos That Ended Child Labor in the US: See the “Social Photography” of Lewis Hine (1911)

The average person believes implicitly that the photograph cannot falsify. Of course, you and I know that this unbounded faith in the integrity of the photograph is often rudely shaken, for, while photographs may not lie, liars may photograph.  —Lewis Wickes Hine, “Social Photography: How the Camera May Help in the Social Uplift” (1909)

Long before Brandon Stanton’s wildly popular Humans of New York project tapped into the public’s capacity for compassion by combining photos of his subjects with some telling narrative about their lives, educator and sociologist Lewis Wickes Hine was using his camera as a tool to pressure the public into demanding an end to child labor in the United States.

In a time when the US Federal Census reported that one in five children under the age of 16over 1.75 millionwas gainfully employed, Hines traversed the country under the auspices of the National Child Labor Committee, gathering information and making portraits of the underage workers.




His images, made between 1911 and 1916, introduced viewers to young boys breaking up coal in Pennsylvania mines, tiny Louisiana oyster shuckers and Maine sardine cutters, child pickers in Kentucky tobacco fields and Massachusetts cranberry bogs, and newsboys in a number of cities.

Their employers actively recruited kids from poor families, wagering that they would perform repetitive, often dangerous tasks for a pittance, with little chance of unionizing.

Hine was a scrupulous documentarian, labeling each photo with crucial information gleaned from conversations with the child pictured therein: name, age, location, occupation, wages, andhorrificallyany workplace injuries.

In an essay in the anthology Major Problems in the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, historian Robert Westbrook lauds Hines’ way of interacting with his subjects with “decorum and tact,” according them a dignity that few of the period’s “condescending” middle-class reformers did.

As the Vox Darkroom segment, above, explains, Hine’s formal compositions lent additional power to his images of smudged child workers posing in their places of employment. Shallow depth of field to ensure that the viewer’s eyes would not become absorbed in the background, but rather engage with those of his subject.

But it was the accompanying narratives, which he referred to variously as “picture stories” or “photo-interpretations,” that he credited with really getting through to the hearts and minds of an indifferent public.

The text prevented viewers from easily brushing the children off as anonymous, scruffy urchins.

Here for instance is “Manuel, the young shrimp-picker, five years old, and a mountain of child-labor oyster shells behind him. He worked last year. Understands not a word of English. Dunbar, Lopez, Dukate Company. Location: Biloxi, Mississippi.”

“Laura Petty, a 6 year old berry picker on Jenkins farm, Rock Creek near Baltimore, Md. 'I'm just beginnin.' Picked two boxes yesterday. (2 cents a box).”

"Angelo Ross, 142 Panama Street, Hughestown Borough, a youngster who has been working in Breaker #9 Pennsylvania Co. for four months, said he was 13 years old, but very doubtful. He has a brother, Tony, probably under 14 working. Location: Pittston, Pennsylvania."

Hine correctly figured that the combination of photo and biographical information was a “lever for the social uplift."

Once the pictures were published in Progressive magazines, state legislatures came under immense pressure to impose minimum age requirements in the workplace, effectively ending child labor, and returning many former workers to school.

View the entire collection of Lewis Hine's National Child Labor Committee photos here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC this March, when her company, Theater of the Apes, presents the world premiere of Tony Award winner Greg Kotis’ new low-budget, guitar-driven musical, I AM NOBODY.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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