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People, Places, Past: How Photographers Explore Identity

Over the next two years the nine works in the groundbreaking Significant Others series of annotated photographs by artist, poet and all round polymath will be rotated at the Wardlaw Museum.

Throughout history, art has been used to express, whether it was to recreate what one was seeing in a landscape, portrait, or still life, or to create something completely new like artists did during movements like Dadaism or Surrealism. Artists have taken their chosen mediums and used their work to convey messages, and many have taken the brush, pen, or camera to represent themselves and their identities.

Maud Sulter did just that; she reflected her identity and her experiences in every facet of her work – photography, poetry, curating, and more. Despite the unique qualities of her work, Sulter was certainly not the first to do such a thing; there is a history of photographers representing parts of their identities, either their personal identity or something larger, like communal or cultural.


Hugh Mangum

A relatively lesser-known, self-taught photographer working and living in Jim Crow era South-Eastern United States, Hugh Mangum’s (1897-1922) work offers a beautiful insight into the identities of the people of the United States. Mangum was a traveling portraitist working primarily in North Carolina and Virginia in the shadow of the segregationist laws of the time, and he welcomed his racially and economically diverse clientele into his temporary studios.

The rediscovery of his work in the 1970s brought an astonishing collection of anonymous portraits of people from the American South at an extremely tempestuous time in the country’s history. The glass plate negatives feature multiple images, a sign of the frequency of his work and the building of relationships between figures that were unlikely pairings. As art historian Deborah Willis stated, his photographs “show us lives marked both by notable affluence and hard work, all imbued with a strong sense of individuality, self-creation and often joy.”



Born Gyula Halász, Brassaï (1899-1984) was a Hungarian-born French photographer, known primarily for his dramatic photographs of Paris at night. Brassaï was passionate about exploring his beloved city of Paris. In the early stage of his artistic career in Paris, Brassaï disliked photography, but found it necessary for journalistic assignments and eventually found unique aesthetic qualities in the medium.

Brassaï began photographing the streets of Paris at night, dimly lit and seemingly desolate – very different from the Paris that was known during the day. Even with a lack of human subjects, there is a quality to Brassaï’s work that brings out the appreciation of a city that held his life and did the same for so many others. His post Second World War work, focused on a city rebuilding itself, emphasises the importance of place and refuge in one’s identity.


Ingrid Pollard

Ingrid Pollard (b.1953) is a British media artist, photographer, and researcher. Throughout her work Pollard has created a social practice concerned with representation, history, and landscape with reference to race, difference, and the materiality of lens-based media – similar to values of Sulter’s work. Yet Pollard has a completely distinct portfolio.

In the 1980s, she was part of a group of British artists, including Lubaina Himid and Maud Sulter, who championed black creative practice, showcasing her work in group exhibitions such as The Thin Black Line at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (1985). Pollard’s work uses portraiture photography and traditional landscape images to explore what she believed to be social constructs, such as Britishness or racial difference. In much of her photography, Pollard references how the past has directly influenced what it means to be black in Britain through colonial connections—working the past into the present to reflect either her own or a familiar group’s identity and how it came to be.


Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman (b.1954) is an American photographer who works primarily in self-portraiture, depicting herself in various costumes and identities to make herself virtually unrecognizable. Sherman’s breakthrough series is considered to be her “Untitled Film Stills”, 70 black-and-white photographs depicting Sherman in stereotypical female roles in film.

In the 1980s, Sherman’s self-portraiture evolved to be a bit more extravagant. Sherman began using makeup, costume, lighting, and facial expressions to completely transform herself. Sherman conceals her identity while simultaneously being the star of her entire career. The photographs bend what we associate with identity—clothing choices, makeup, mannerisms, and more, things that make everyone an individual. Sherman studies these and imitates them in order to completely alter her own identity. Without the knowledge of who Sherman is and her practice, a large number of these photographs could deceive an audience.


Each of these photographers above explore identity in different ways – changing themselves, capturing their surroundings, or photographing their communities. How do you explore your identity through creativity? Is it through photography like Maud Sulter and these artists, or maybe writing poetry, or even something completely your own?


Written by Samantha Hillsman, a Masters student in Museum and Gallery Studies and part of the group who have curated Maud Sulter: Portraits of a Family Tree at the Wardlaw Museum.

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