A Case of Mistaken Identity

Visual Culture Studies 2.0

Scurlock Studio photo of work attributed to Allan Freelon mounted on file page. Photo: Smithsonian Institution Scurlock CollectionIn this unassuming photographic reproduction of what appears to be a stock genre scene of a fisherman at work, we also see an interesting confluence of photography, art and art history.

From Howard University we find a photo of an artwork attributed to one if its celebrated professors — the art historian and artist James A. Porter (1905-1970).  The work was photographed by the Scurlock Studio, the leading African American photographer in Washington DC.

Smithsonian notations on this gelatin silver print indicate it was found in an envelope marked “Porter Drawings” among Scurlock negatives and is thus attributed to Porter by their cataloguers. In 2008, Porter’s daughter Coni Porter Uzelac said the work should be attributed to Allan Freelon (1895-1960), an adherent of Porter’s scholarship, rather than her father. We confirmed Uzelac’s attribution with Freelon’s descendants and then found a similar work by Freelon, Mending Nets.
Allan Freelon, Mending Tents, aquatint on cream wove paper, 1930, 9 x12”

The photo of the carefully-composed Freelon painting in the Scurlock archive — which gives us an aerial perspective onto a central figure with back to viewer (a popular European-American pictorial trope, rügenfigur, to focus the viewer’s attention) in a compressed space full of textual and elemental A closer view of the photographvariety for the eye — conveys James A. Porter’s interest, as scholar and teacher, in possessing work that contextualized African American art and history within the larger canon of American painting. A work such as this one would have been a fine example of an African American painter working with European traditions and an apt guide for students or a model example for discussion in scholarship.

Freelon, who lived in the Philadelphia area, exhibited at Howard University and mostly likely interacted with Porter there.  He reviewed Porter's book, Modern Negro Art in the spring 1944 issue of The Journal of Negro Education.