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Photos capture strength of memorable black leaders

The Baltimore Sun

If you're thinking profiles in courage, the only face you might expect to see but won't in the National Portrait Gallery's lovely homage to black men and women is the tall, skinny guy who got famous just several months ago.

Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits, the museum's monumental survey of nearly 100 photographic portraits of black leaders past and present, pays homage to black Americans who fought for their country's highest ideals with whatever means at hand, and in every field of endeavor.

The roster includes civil rights activists Frederick Douglass, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, writers Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, musicians Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Leontyne Price, artists Jacob Lawrence and Elizabeth Catlett, sports pioneers Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali.

Many of them are familiar faces by now. But the images in the show are not. Most of them are rarely seen pictures culled from the National Portrait Gallery's vast photographic archive by Deborah Willis, the award-winning scholar, curator and artist.

Willis took on the present project in early 2006 for the Smithsonian Institution's new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is scheduled to open on the Mall in Washington in 2015. The idea was to create a traveling exhibition to be the museum's public face while construction is under way.

Amazingly, Willis was able to come up with a show that normally might take three years to five years to curate in just 18 months. That was, of course, before the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, had become as familiar as he is today. (Not to worry: It's certain his picture will eventually make its way into the Smithsonian's collection.)

In the meantime, what Willis has given us is not just a celebration of black excellence and achievement but a serious study in the uses of photographic portraiture.

Take, for example, the portrait made by an unknown photographer of Douglass, from around 1856. The image conveys Douglass' well-known expression of unshakable determination and his leonine mane of salt-and-pepper hair.

But Willis also points out what may not be so obvious to modern viewers: Douglass' dapper attire celebrated what his contemporaries would have instantly recognized as the style of a "dandy" -- someone whose carefully cultivated appearance and demeanor combined to distinguish him as a person of unusual gifts and abilities.

In the exhibition catalog, Willis quotes art historian Richard J. Powell's description of Douglass as "a black activist dandy of the antebellum period."

We don't usually think of Douglass as a "dandy." But Douglass was quite conscious of the fact that he had to make himself stand out in order to be heard.

Quite a different identity is revealed in Ida Berman's 1955 portrait of Rosa Parks, whose arrest for refusing to give up her seat to a white male passenger on the segregated buses in Montgomery, Ala., sparked a successful bus boycott that became an early victory of the civil rights movement and propelled the young King to national fame.

It's an astonishing image because it draws such a stark contrast between this unprepossessing woman's goodness and the monstrous evil of the injustice she was forced to endure every time she got on a city bus.

The genius of the show is that each of the portraits in the exhibition has been chosen to tell not only a story about the person in the photograph but also about the society in which they lived.

glenn.mcnatt@baltsun.com

The exhibit runs through March 2 at the National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets Northwest, Washington. Call 202-633-8300 or go to npg.si.edu.

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