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Photography of Richard Samuel Roberts

January 8 through August 11, 2004


During the 1920s and 1930s in Columbia, South Carolina, a black man named Richard Samuel Roberts worked from 4:00am to noon at the United States Post Office. In the afternoon, Roberts walked to the heart of the segregated city's African-American commercial district, where he maintained a photography studio. Roberts' clientele was, for the most part, Columbia's black population. He photographed every facet of his community including bankers, teachers, social workers and even magicians. At a time when American society often presented stereotyped images of African-Americans in films and advertisements, Roberts amassed a sophisticated body of portraits which revealed the sensitivity, individuality and intelligence of his subjects. (right: Richard Samuel Roberts, American, 1880-1936, Wilhelmina Telitha Minnie Roberts (b. 1915), c. 1919, silver gelatin print, Gift of Gerald E. Roberts, Beverly Roberts, Cornelius C. Roberts and Wilhelmina R. Wynn)

Although Roberts was one of several southern African-American photographers active at the beginning of this century, he was more successful than most at emphasizing the medium's aesthetic qualities. His mastery of light and his concern for the details of each sitting resulted in moving portraits. This selection of images of women and children from the museum's permanent collection is evidence of Roberts' passion for the finished product. Roberts designed and constructed most of his studio equipment including the posing chair which was designed so the back, arms and decorative finial could be taken off to suit each particular portrait.

Roberts' photographs are invaluable not only for their artistic qualities, but also for their documentation of a time and a community in Columbia that otherwise might have been forgotten. (left: Richard Samuel Roberts, American, 1880-1936, Laura Goode, 1920s, silver gelatin print, Gift of Gerald E. Roberts, Beverly Roberts, Cornelius C. Roberts and Wilhelmina R. Wynn)


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