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Look at This! A Special Portrait From Voodoo Macbeth

This post is part of a series called Look at This! Great Photographs Revisited.
Look at This! An Aerial Photographer's View of The World
A New American Gothic

This picture has a great story, but let's take a look at it first: 

Macduff from Shakespeare's Macbeth. Part of the Billy Rose Theatre Collection via The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

What Can We See?

We know from the context above and from the costume on the subject that this photograph is a theatre actor. From the title, we know that production to be Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The sign in the background with ‘Balcony’ and ‘Mezzanine’ written on it shows that this photograph was taken in the theatre. The portrait is a rather formal head and shoulders composition, with the subject facing to the right and looking away from the camera.

This photograph is part of the the Billy Rose Theatre Collection. William ‘Billy’ Rose was born in New York in 1899, and after starting a career as a stenographic clerk and then a lyricist, he went on to become a nightclub owner and Broadway producer. In 1959 (and up until his death in 1966) he owned and ran the Billy Rose Theatre, giving him insider access to create a wealth of fascinating ‘show’ images. In other words, this is a photograph made by someone who was trusted and had a degree of intimacy with his subject.

How Does This Photo Make You Feel?

The fact we’re ‘in’ the theatre immediately gives this photograph more character—as if we needed it with that costume! The whole atmosphere is changed with this: we know that the actor hasn't been taken to a studio or even outside, he is in his workspace. However, he’s not on stage, or even backstage, he’s in a public area. Why? Is the photographer trying to set apart the actor from the stage, even though he’s in costume?

For me personally, the first time I saw this photograph I thought ‘circus’. This was due to the flamboyant costume, the style of writing on the sign in the background and the slightly ‘tent-like’ material of the back wall. I doubt that this was the photographer’s intention but it’s interesting nonetheless, as everything else is completely at odds with that—a circus is fun, fast paced and busy; this image seems very serious, static and flat, there are no great contrasts in tones here, everything is measured and calm.

The Story Behind the Image: Breaking New Ground

Macbeth is set in Scotland and was traditionally performed with an all-white cast. Our impeccably bearded thespian is African-American.

"Set in Haiti [and] featuring an all-black cast. Macbeth was a sensation seen by more than one hundred thousand people. Greatly admired by many and discussed by everyone."—Harlem Renaissance Lives

Orson Welles' "Voodoo Macbeth" (as it was nicknamed) debuted in 1936 at the Lafayette Theatre in New York. It was a major hit. An all-black cast drew a crowd of ten thousand to the street in front of the Harlem theatre (capacity slightly more than twelve hundred) on the opening night, snarling traffic for an hour. The production went on to sell out nightly.

" After the curtain fell on the final grim tableau of the witches holding Macbeth's severed head aloft as Hecate intoned ominously, "The charm's wound up!" cheers and applause filled the auditorium for 15 minutes."—The Play That Electrified Harlem

This was ground breaking. At the time, African-American performers were usually restricted to "dancing and signing for white audiences." The story of exclusion, discrimination and racism in the arts continues, but this was a play that broke the mold. It is a proud moment.

Looking Back With Today's Eyes

And this is a proud photograph.

This portrait is a positive, handsome, nuanced depiction of a black man made at a time when these were rare. As #OscarsSoWhite shows, images like this are all too rare still.

History gives our understanding of the photograph an entirely different context. We’re not looking at just any actor's head-shot from a production, we’re looking at a significant piece of history and a leap forward for black actors and the African-American community. Not just in Harlem, but in America.

Does this change the way we experience the photograph? I think so.

Sometimes, often with the best of photos, a picture will grow on you. As you learn about it's history and context, and revisit it over again, you see new things. This one true mark of a great photo.

Think about your very initial response to this picture, your very first gut reaction. What did you feel? What do you feel now that you look at it knowing the history? Do feel a new relationship to the subject? Do you notice new details? There is a particular joy in discovering a new way to look at an old photograph.

Think too about your own context. How does your experience colour the way you read the photograph? Knowing the story, do you think about the image differently? How does your own experience of race shape the way you see?

That's a lot to process all at once but, like any skill, answering these questions gets faster and easier with practice. Practice with critical viewing will also help you process images outside in the world, where the motivations and purposes of images are not as transparent as in a controlled setting like this one.

Your Turn! Belly Dance Performer

Belly Dance Performer Fritzi Schaffer as Salome is part of the George Grantham Bain Collection and was taken in 1910. How does this compare to our picture of Macbeth? What is the historical context here; how were women performers generally treated and perceived at the time? Can we draw any parallels between the rise of women and minority groups in performance?

belly dance performer
Belly Dance Performer Fritzi Schaffer as Salome via Library of Congress

If you're unsure of what to look for in a photograph, check out Dawn Oosterhoff's excellent article: How to Read a Photograph and let us know what you see in this image.

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