The Arabella Chapman Project

Arabella Chapman, Vol 1, page 13

A project out University of Michigan that digitized two 19th-century photo albums owned by an African-American woman named Arabella “Bella” Chapman recently went live:

The Arabella Chapman Project brings together students and scholars of African American history and culture to explore the role of visual culture, especially photography, as a critical dimension of the everyday life and politics of black Americans at the end of the nineteenth century.

Inspired by two rare and beautifully preserved photo albums, the Project seeks to document the people and the lives reflected in nearly 100 images, most being tintypes and cartes-des-visites. Clues embedded in the albums such as captions and marginalia when linked with the tools of social history, including city directories and census returns, reveal the rich world that revolved around the resort and hotel culture of New York’s Capital Region and Berkshire County, Massachusetts.

Included are a few figures heretofore known to historians. Luminaries such as Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Abraham Lincoln are present through their cartes-de-visite, which were widely reproduced for purchase. More typical in the Chapman albums, however, are the working men and women of the region, dressed in their finest clothes and making what was a rare visit to a local photo studio. In this sense, they come to us as they hoped to be seen and remembered.

Many of the people included in the Chapman albums are still unknown to us. The Project invites students, scholars and the public to become part of this process of recuperation. In this sense, the Project is a living archive, one that will grow and change over time through the insights of its users.

As Director of The Arabella Chapman Project, I invite you to join this collaboration. We welcome your insights and reflections, and hope you’ll use our comment pages to join the conversation.

Martha S. Jones

Arthur F. Thurnau Professor

Professor of History and Afroamerican and African Studies

via The Arabella Chapman Project

Students who participated wrote blog posts about their experience and had tintypes taken of themselves which will remain at the Clements Library in Ann Arbor as part of their archive.

A video on the project is here:



4 thoughts on “The Arabella Chapman Project

  1. Fascinating, except for the reference to “selfies.” I’m sick of the over-emphasis on sitter’s agency in recent scholarship on early photography. Yes, sitters probably made SOME choices about their appearance–especially in terms of costume and hair dress. But the limits of early photographic technology also dictated what poses and facial expressions could be successfully captured. And a set of pictorial conventions stemming from the portrait traditions of European painting and the non-photographic graphic arts powerfully shaped the aesthetic goals of photographers and their subjects.

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