Photographing Freetowns: African American Kentucky Through the Lens of Helen Balfour Morrison, 1935-1946

Exhibiting Kentucky in Chicago

Helen Morrison mounted her first major photographic exhibition in 1936 at the O’Brien Gallery on North Michigan Avenue in Chicago. For the show she selected 50 photographs, including 40 from her “Great Americans,” series and 10 from the Kentucky set, which she called “Sugar Hill and String Town.” She noted the Kentucky prints in her handwritten record of the exhibition contents and provided titles for all of them, including some, such as Aunt Georgi Ann and Allie B., that she did not record on the photographs.

Chicago Daily Tribune critic Eleanor Jewett praised Morrison’s work, noting in the language of the time that “[t]he group of Negro prints from the ‘Sugar Hill and String Town’ collection is splendid.” In an unpublished article, Jessica Nelson North called Morrison a “Camera Clairvoyant,” and singled out her Kentucky images: “Here as always the character of the subjects emerged triumphant, leaving the observer somewhat humbler than before ... Dignity is there, faith, and an inate [sic.] belief in the goodness of life.”

Despite positive reviews, a possible show at the Indianapolis Art Museum in 1939, and frequent exhibitions of the “Great Americans” at major venues, there is no record that Helen Morrison displayed her Kentucky work again in a gallery or museum. Eleanor Jewett mentioned the images 11 years later in her 1947 review of Morrison’s photographic exhibition, “The Inheritance,” at the University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society. After that brief final notice, they disappeared entirely from public view.

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