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

Portraits of Age

In the freetowns, extended families often lived together, with grandparents, cousins, and in-laws sharing the same household. Helen Morrison’s images document this practice. She often took multiple close-up portraits of elderly subjects, possibly aiming to reveal character in the lines and expressions on older faces. In contrast, Morrison almost always photographed children from a greater distance.

Despite the close-up format of many of the portraits of older Kentuckians, the images preserve a sense of distance between the photographer and her subjects. With the exception of the kitchen scenes, Morrison photographed people outside – on porches, in yards or fields, walking in town, or at work. In this way, she signaled her status as an outsider passing through.

Little is known about how Morrison approached people who were strangers to her, or what directions she gave them once they agreed to be photographed. Most of her resulting images are posed and are probably the result of some conversation and negotiation. Writer and historian David Daiches noted in the brochure for Morrison’s 1946 Detroit Institute of the Arts exhibition, 100 Prints of Artists in America, that she allowed her subjects “to symbolize themselves in spontaneous gestures and expressions” before she clicked the shutter.

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