Beginning in 1898, the faculty Camera Club of Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in southern Virginia (now Hampton University) began an ambitious project to illustrate dialect poems by the celebrated African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 – 1906). Dedicated to the school’s mission of providing educational and economic opportunities for African Americans post-Emancipation, the predominantly white members of the Camera Club were drawn to Dunbar’s poetry for its rich depictions of African American folk life. Produced in collaboration with Dunbar’s publishers, several celebrated book designers, as well as Dunbar himself, the books represent an early and influential use of photographs to illustrate text. These handsome volumes also demonstrate how the Hampton faculty members saw photography as way to insert a new standard of realism into images of African Americans – one that would counter traditional caricatures of Black Americans in popular media by offering nuanced perceptions and humanizing its subjects.
Known internally as the “Kiquotan Kamera Klub” – after the Pamunkey Indian name for the peninsula on which the school was located – the Hampton Institute Camera Club was established by faculty members and their spouses in 1893. Their experiments with Dunbar’s poetry began in 1897, when it was suggested that they illustrate the poem “The Deserted Planation” as part of a creative group exercise. Pleased with the outcome, the club members submitted the photographs for publication with the New York-based Dodd, Mead & Co., with whom members had personal ties. Dunbar’s publishers responded by proposing that several other poems of Dunbar’s be published with “The Deserted Plantation” and illustrated by the club.
The first volume, Poems of Cabin and Field, then appeared on booksellers’ shelves in November 1899, just in time for the Christmas gift book season. Over the next seven years, Dodd, Mead & Co., followed the Camera Club’s early success by producing five similar books. Taken as a whole, the series of photo-texts are an important expression of the Hampton community’s multilayered attitudes toward African American folk culture and betray a substantial ambivalence to the school’s much-publicized civilizing missions.