Candle Lightin’ Time
- Dunbar, Paul Laurence

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Commentary

The photographs in each volume were made predominantly by the white members of the Hampton Institute Camera Club (HICC), which operated from 1893-1926. Sapirstein summarises the racial nuances of the collaboration thusly:

In spite of their posed nature, many of the images are also fair approximations of material conditions and rural African American life of antebellum slave culture but should be regarded critically when they seem to transparently depict “life on the old plantation,” which neither Dunbar nor the photographers would have regarded first-hand. (Sapirstein, ‘Picturing Dunbar’s Lyrics,’ p.328.)

Dunbar’s dialect poems articulate an African American voice that often undercuts the facile interpretation of the photographs as showing the sentimental remembrance of slavery, the supposed benevolence of the white plantation owners, and stereotypes of poverty and backwardness. Only rarely did the HICC illustrate any of Dunbar’s poems in standard English, and Sapirstein highlights the likelihood that the HICC focussed on the dialect poems to complement their own use of photography ‘as the means of reforming the depiction of African Americans in the popular media of the time.’ (Sapirstein, ‘Picturing Dunbar’s Lyrics,’ p.331.)

Indeed, Candle Lightin’ Time is already a more nuanced photographic project than Poems of Cabin and Field, as the HICC began to move away from overtly literal understandings of Dunbar’s verse towards subtler interpretations. The increasing involvement of Leigh Richmond Miner in the photographic project is perhaps responsible for this more sophisticated approach.

Book Details

Author: Dunbar, Paul Laurence
Title: Candle Lightin’ Time
Publication Year: 1901
Poets Featured: Dunbar, Paul Laurence
Photographers Featured: Hampton Institute Camera Club

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