Wendel White, Distinguished Professor of Art & American Studies at Stockton University, New Jersey, will use the 2021 Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography to work on Manifest: Thirteen Colonies, an ongoing photographic project of African American material culture housed in both public and private collections throughout New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
The subjects of White’s photography are rare, singular objects, as well as more quotidian material. He photographs diaries, documents, musical instruments, doors, hair, photographs, souvenirs, and other artifacts. As White explains, “The ability of objects to transcend lives, centuries, and millennia suggests a remarkable mechanism for folding time, bringing the past and the present into a shared space that is uniquely suited to artistic exploration. These artifacts are the forensic evidence of Black life and events in the United States.” He describes himself as delving into archives in order to “excavate black history through material culture.” His photographs are “a response to the collective physical remnants of the American concept and representation of race.”
“At this time, when the holdings of institutions like museums are being scrutinized closely by both the public and museums themselves, the critical gaze that White brings to objects from African American history is welcome and important,” says Jane Pickering, William and Muriel Seabury Howells Director of the Peabody Museum. “White’s choices of subject matter challenge outdated notions of what kinds of objects are historically significant. His photography brings new context to these objects and paves the ground for a new history that is calling for greater engagement.”
The word “manifest” in White’s project title “evokes the complicated notions of slavery as cargo or inventory and the notion that these objects are also a collection or reliquary of African American experience and memory,” White told Huffington Post. Although over the course of his career White has documented objects from other parts of the United States, in Manifest: Thirteen Colonies, he says he will expand on and create new work from “collections within the boundaries of the ‘thirteen colonies.’ Geography has been an ongoing concern and aspect of the work…The project will not be limited to the colonial period. I hope to simply use these locations as a frame in the landscape to view archives.”
White has already visited the thirteen colonies and beyond. He is constantly seeking new archives, collections and objects. He says that he begins his process through a combination of reading (looking for references to collections in various source material) and simply making cold calls to various institutions that might have material culture collections. “Often, [when] speaking to librarians and curators at institutions without content that connects to my work, they suggest places for me to look.” He shoots his images onsite, often in the archives reading rooms. He uses available light “making my presence much less intrusive” and framing the object as a “ritual of the experience” rather than “idealized by lighting.”
White’s attention to seemingly unremarkable objects in these archives such as a tape recorder, a lock of hair, a bus station sign, and a piece of stained glass echoes the questions that many anthropologists ask: What kinds of objects can tell us about peoples’ lives, or, in this case, contribute meaningfully to a narrative about Black experience? The answer is many, if you know that the tape recorder was used by Malcolm X at Mosque 7; there are locks of hair from both Frederick Douglass and his daughter, Rosetta; the bus station sign is for a segregated waiting room and resides now at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; the stained glass is a remnant from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama where four young Black girls were killed by a White Supremacist bomb in 1963. The latter is one of the most painful objects White has photographed, according to Huffington Post. “White’s ingenuity is not only what he chooses to photograph but how he does it,” says the Peabody Museum Curator of Visual Anthropology Ilisa Barbash. “White has a very distinctive style. Many of the objects he photographs are angled in such a way that viewers are compelled to look more closely than they might have in order to understand what they are seeing. This demands a greater engagement and deeper contemplation from viewers than had he shot the objects head on.”
While White started his career shooting with analog film, once Fuji stopped making Quickload film, he shifted to digital technology. He now uses what he calls a combo camera: a digital Hassalblad body with a lens usually associated with film cameras. This allows for the softer look of film, with the convenience of digital shooting. He is able to shift the back of the camera slightly to take multiple pictures of the same object and weave them together digitally to create a richer image.
Wendel White has taught photography at the School of Visual Arts, New York, NY; The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, New York, NY; the International Center for Photography, New York, NY; Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY; and is currently Distinguished Professor of Art & American Studies at Stockton University, Galloway, NJ.
White is the fourteenth recipient of the Gardner fellowship. He has received other awards and fellowships including a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in Photography, three artist fellowships from the New Jersey State Council for the Arts, Bunn Lectureship in Photography and grants from Center Santa Fe (Juror’s Choice), the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, and a New Works Photography Fellowship from En Foco.
His work is represented in museum and corporate collections including Duke University; the New Jersey State Museum; California Institute for Integral Studies; The Graham Foundation for the Advancement of the Fine Arts, Chicago, IL; En Foco, New York, NY; Rochester Institute of Technology; The Museum of Fine Art, Houston; Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, IL; Haverford College, Haverford, PA; University of Delaware; University of Alabama; and the New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York, NY.
White has served on the board of directors for the Society for Photographic Education including three years as board chair. He has also served on the Kodak Educational Advisory Council, NJ Save Outdoor Sculpture, the Atlantic City Historical Museum, and the New Jersey Black Culture and Heritage Foundation. White was a board member, including three years as board chair, of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.
Recent projects include; Red Summer; Manifest; Schools for the Colored; Village of Peace: An African American Community in Israel; Small Towns, Black Lives; and others.
“I am grateful that this fellowship, generously endowed by Robert Gardner (1925–2014), allows us to support emerging and mid-career photographers in their efforts to document, as Gardner put it, ‘the human condition anywhere in the world,’” says Jane Pickering. “The innovative and meaningful photography that has emerged from this fellowship since 2007 is extraordinary and helps to move the medium forward in exciting ways. “I would like to extend my deepest thanks not only to Robert Gardner and his wife, Adele Pressman, but also to the anonymous award committee and nominators, and to the extraordinary artists who were invited to submit proposals for this highly competitive award.”
Wendel White portrait by Carmela Colón-White. Segregated Bus Waiting Room Sign, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC. 2016 © Wendel White; Stained Glass, 16th Street Baptist Church (Birmingham, AL), Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC, 2016 © Wendel White; Tape recorder used by Malcolm X at Mosque #7, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC, 2016 © Wendel White.