FALL RIVER -- Three children pose on the railing of a front porch in Lincoln, Neb., in 1915. The kids, African-Americans -- two girls and, if the lack of hair ribbons is an indication, a baby boy -- wear their Sunday best. The girls don't smile, but regard the camera frankly; the infant looks unhappy. At the bottom of the frame, a woman's gingham skirt bells out from behind the railing. Is that Mom, hiding back there to hold the baby in place?
The photo is one of 40 revelatory images in ``Recovered Views: African American Portraits 1912-1925," at the Grimshaw-Gudewicz Art Gallery at Bristol Community College. The images were probably shot by John Johnson , an African-American son of a former slave and Civil War veteran. They came to light in 1999, when a Lincoln family took its collection of glass-plate negatives to the Nebraska State Historical Society. They bore no mark of authorship, but a local woman identified them as Johnson's handiwork -- she had posed for him as a child -- and the exhibit attributes the work to him.
Many African-Americans opened photography businesses in the first decades of the 20th century. Their pictures challenged pervasive stereotypical images of the day, but we don't often see them. Johnson's photos were taken in a city in which racial segregation was being written into law and the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise.
He had a keen eye for composition and tonality and a talent for putting his subjects at ease. Johnson worked with a boxy view camera; he hid under a black curtain capturing an upside-down image on a plate covered with emulsion. But many of his portraits look as if he's right there, making eye contact with his subjects. One brilliant image shows a young mother seated on a porch with her toddler. The boy looks right out at us with a delighted grin.
Some portraits are playful, like one of Ethel and Charles Smith and Anna Hill at Salt Creek (oral-history interviews have provided clues to who many of Johnson's subjects are). Johnson framed the shot carefully, with a dam in the background, horizontal pylons, and a fallen tree crossing diagonally behind the three sitters. Charles Smith sits back against one pylon, his hat at a jaunty angle. Ethel's expression seems to say, ``You know how Charles can be." Hill sits above the couple, regarding them.
All of these images have been created digitally from either glass-plate negatives or vintage prints. They're marred, water-stained and uncropped. Often we can see beyond the backdrop Johnson hung for his portraits. Three comical photos show young women dressed as men, posing with liquor bottles, playing cards , and cigarettes. This was a common conceit in early - 20th-century photography: women costumed as misbehaving men. In one, two young women loll in front of a Mexican-blanket backdrop. One even wears a sombrero. But along the edges we see the telltale clapboard on the Nebraskan house against which they've staged their scene.
It's rare to see photos of this era with many people looking so comfortable. It's even more rare to see images of early - 20th-century African-Americans through the eyes of an African-American photographer. Johnson didn't make anything of their race. He simply photographed the people in his community, often surrounded by family and friends, often having a grand old time. He did it with considerable skill.
Weber has an eye for irony, juxtaposing the advertising that wallpapers the city with the people who live in it. ``Columbus Circle 2005" has a woman with a cigarette standing beside a movie poster for ``The Constant Gardener"; a silhouette on the poster of a man holding a gun has the pistol pointing directly at the woman's head. ``Hell's Kitchen 1989" shows a bearded man asleep on the ground beneath a row of posters for a Van Gogh exhibition, featuring the artist's bearded self-portrait. What does the man, probably homeless, have in common with the artist? From what we know of Van Gogh, possibly a lot.
The most startling image, ``9/11/2001," was taken that day. In the distance, smoke blooms from the World Trade Center. All the lines and angles of the photo lead the eye to that hazy central scene. But in the foreground, a mother tends to her daughter in a park as a toddler, blithely ignorant, plays nearby. Others in the photo have their backs to us, watching; they look like spectators at a hot-air balloon show. Weber offers up what appears to be a sunny bubble of safety, with terror breathing fire at its fragile edge.