Art, Power, and Profit at Duke University
Two longtime Duke faculty members are behind an anticipated $2 million in art sales that raise questions about the ethical use of public-domain images, power imbalances within academia, and a university’s thorny role as a gatekeeper of information and access.
Two young women are pictured side by side.
On the left, a white-presenting girl wears a polka-dot suit, a banded boater hat, and a hyacinth bloom pinned to her lapel. On the right, a Black-presenting girl with a middle part and a cool look wears a plaid cravat that looks almost windswept, tucked under the roll line of her dark coat. Though they are separated by the pale boundary of a photographic frame, they share a certain intensity.
The black and white portraits were taken at the turn of the twentieth century by the white Durham-born itinerant photographer Hugh Mangum. The young women sat in a makeshift studio at the height of the Jim Crow era, perhaps in a tent or a bright unused storefront, probably in Virginia or North Carolina. Their names were likely never recorded, their photographs probably paid for with coins.
Now their likenesses are being sold for thousands of dollars on the high-end art market.
In January 2020, 12 limited-edition Mangum prints appeared in Madrid’s Camara Oscura Art Gallery. Another 32 went up for sale in June of this year, represented by the Los Angeles-based art dealer MB Abram in concert with New York’s ACA Galleries, which will exhibit the images this fall.
Prints range in cost from $3,000 to $12,000 each. Between U.S. and European sales, the potential revenue is roughly $2 million.
When I first pitched an essay on Hugh Mangum last December, I imagined it as a breezy feature. Maybe I would road-trip, my editor suggested, and reconstruct some of Mangum’s travels.
Instead, it has been a very different kind of journey.
The story that unfolded as I explored Mangum’s archive raised questions about appropriate use of public-domain images, power imbalances within academia, and a university’s vexed role as a gatekeeper of resources and information.
At the story’s center:
A powerful institution—Duke University—wealthy in assets and prestige, but poor on clear policies that help protect the university’s public research mission and vulnerable early-career scholars;
Two prominent artists and scholars connected with Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, who stood to gain—thanks in part to the university’s endorsements of their work—roughly a million dollars on the sale of images from the public domain;
A former graduate student whose research is consigned to a small press while her thesis advisor—one of those prominent scholars—publishes a book on the same little-known subject through well-connected and well-resourced university channels;
And a grassroots community whose fight for the public preservation of a local artist’s legacy ran up against a university bureaucracy that appears to have allowed its senior faculty exclusive access while denying other scholars access to newly discovered public domain images.
“It’s like a Law & Order episode!” said Carla Williams, a prominent photographer and photo historian.
And like a Law & Order episode, the plot shifted along the way. When The Assembly approached Duke for comment, the university made several significant changes to its policies, including rejecting an offer they previously had accepted for a portion of the proceeds from these sales, and banning the future use of the authorizing document at the sales’ center.
And just before press time, the scholars behind the sales also made significant changes to their plans, redirecting their share of the profits.
“The richness of the Mangum collection is much greater than its monetizing,” remarked Maurice Wallace, a scholar of African-American literature and visual culture, as well as a former Duke professor, and longtime resident of Durham.
And though the Hugh Mangum images may have journeyed near and far, all roads lead back to Durham, North Carolina.
Courtesy of the Hugh Mangum Photograph Archive, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University
In the early 1970s, an old packhouse in Durham was saved from demolition by environmental activists. From the barn’s loft, hundreds of glass-plate negatives and black-and-white prints were salvaged. They were covered in dust, grime, and chicken shit.
This was all that was left of the decades-long hustle of Hugh Mangum.
Mangum was born on East Main Street in downtown Durham in 1877. When his parents and siblings moved north of the city to the already languishing cotton, watermelon, and tobacco fields on Eno ancestral lands, Mangum set up a darkroom in the family barn.
From the 1890s through the early 1920s, Mangum did a lot of coming and going from this loft. He traveled predominantly by rail, establishing temporary photography studios in Greensboro, Roanoke, and Winston-Salem. He took pictures in Raleigh, Pulaski, Stantonsburg, Farmville, and Middlesex. He set up his camera in the shadow of circus tents. He printed paper advertisements and enticing coupons, proffering “All kinds of pictures.”
When Mangum died suddenly in 1922, the negatives that he’d stashed periodically in Durham were largely forgotten, even after they were accessioned—formally acquired and recorded—by Duke University’s Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library in 1986.
It is only in recent years that Mangum’s work has enjoyed growing international recognition, in part because his portraits reflect a diverse clientele that included Black Americans during the racial terror that characterized the post-Reconstruction south.
Courtesy of the Hugh Mangum Photograph Archive, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University
Mangum used a Penny Picture camera, which allowed him to create multiple exposures cheaply on a single glass plate in an indexical grid. These consecutive portraits resemble a photographer’s contact sheet, and show that unlike some white-owned studios, Black customers were not, apparently, relegated to specific days of the week. Black and white sitters likely shared space in Mangum’s ad hoc studios.
Many admirers of Mangum’s work see him as atypical—a lone white Southerner righteously eschewing segregation. The New Yorker hailed his “democratic vision.” A BBC headline claimed that he “rejected racism.” And writer Michael Lesy opined that “Hugh Mangum didn’t see African American people the way Jim Crow saw them.”
But there’s little evidence that Mangum saw his work as political.
John Edwin Mason is an associate professor of history and the co-director of the Holsinger Portrait Project at the University of Virginia. The project draws on some 500 portraits of Black residents of Charlottesville, made by the white photographer Rufus Holsinger in the same years that Mangum was working.
Holsinger served on the Charlottesville City Council, where he actively supported segregationist policies. “He upheld racial hierarchy on the one hand,” explained Mason, “and collaborated with African American sitters to make portraits that challenge that hierarchy on the other.”
Courtesy of the Hugh Mangum Photograph Archive, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University
Mangum was not a public official. His voting record is as unrecorded as the conversations he had with his patrons. But it’s doubtful he was an equity-crusading artist. Instead, portrait after Mangum portrait chronicles the everyday interracial intimacies that he observed as a product of his moment, not as an exception to it.
That nuance, however, doesn’t sell. “HUGH MANGUM: American Rebel” reads the rock-and-roll tagline on the art dealer MB Abram’s website.
And it may prove successful.
The architects of the sales are husband-and-wife photographers, writers, and curators Margaret Sartor and Alex Harris. Both have long associations with Duke University and its renowned Center for Documentary Studies (CDS), a nonprofit university affiliate billed as a “catalyst for social change.”
Harris co-founded CDS in 1989 after several years of running its precursor, Duke’s Center for Documentary Photography. His photography appears in the permanent collections at the MoMA, the Getty, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Sartor is currently a visiting lecturer at Duke, where she has taught at CDS for years. Her photographs are part of the permanent collections of Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the North Carolina Museum of Art.
The Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero, introduced Sartor and Harris as “old friends from Duke” at a book talk at the National Archives, and Abram notes on his website that “Alex and I grew up together.” Their CVs are a who’s who of the art world.
The prints created by Sartor and Harris are made from color scans of Mangum’s glass plate negatives. They are altered using image-editing software and enlarged. But in some places, color is imperceptible, and the prints appear similar to the images that Mangum made. “The work we do and have done for decades is artistic and creative,” Sartor and Harris wrote to The Assembly.
When asked whether they considered their prints to be new work—not just a copy of the original—Sartor and Harris responded, “Our work related to Hugh Mangum is a celebration of his talent and legacy, and that this has been and remains our primary intention could not be clearer.”
Caitlin Margaret Kelly curates the archive at the Rubenstein Library where the Hugh Mangum Photograph Collection now resides. “I think it’s still really closely tied to the archive,” she said of the Sartor and Harris’s prints.
David Deal is an intellectual property lawyer, noted in the art world as the attorney who pursued the copyright-infringement case of Vivian Maier, a posthumously celebrated documentarian. “They are one hundred percent not new works,” he told me. Deal explained that original work is created at the moment it becomes fixed in a tangible medium—in this case, when Mangum made the first photographic capture. “Everything after that is not original work, as defined by current U.S. copyright law,” he said.
Because the images are in the public domain, reproducing them and selling the prints is legal. Any claim that Mangum or his descendants might have had would have expired—at maximum—70 years after his death. And even if the sitters in Mangum’s portraits could be identified, their descendants would have little recourse to intervene. However, some scholars and creatives have questioned the sales.
“I think it’s deeply unethical,” said Mason, the University of Virginia professor. “I am shocked. I am shocked that people connected to the CDS would do such a thing, that they would take an out-of-copyright work and sell it as if it was their own.”
The issue, Mason elaborated in an email to The Assembly, is profiting from the work of a photographer who can have no say in the matter and from the images of sitters who likewise have no say. “We’re ethically required to take the image maker, the subjects, and their descendants into consideration,” he wrote, adding that the rights of the subjects of photos have become an increasing concern in recent years.
As a training ground for documentarians, the CDS holds itself up as a paragon of ethical practice. Among its core principles are “ethics, accountability, and civic responsibility.”
The art dealers and galleries involved promote the prints as a sort of middle ground between old and new. Abram advertises that his prints are “based on the photos of Hugh Mangum, as conceived and printed by” Sartor and Harris. Camara Oscura offers that the prints are made by Sartor and Harris “under their own interpretation and the fidelity to the original glass negatives.”
“To produce those images at a scale that was not possible and certainly never intended, that is such art-market bullshit,” said Williams, the photographer, who is also proprietor of the forthcoming Galerie 1840 in New Orleans. “[The images] are printed at that scale to ask for five figures. It’s gross.”
“That is the ugliest part of the art market, finessing language to claim ownership over something that a privileged access to technology allows us to make,” said Deirdre Visser, Curator of the Arts at California Institute of Integral Studies. “That’s just an art-market grab.”
Mangum’s granddaughter, Martha Sumler, has come to know her grandfather through his letters, his photographs, and her mother’s reminiscences. She finds the sales upsetting. Among the works on offer are several of Mangum’s self-portraits, two portraits that include one of his sisters, and a photo of her mother—Mangum’s only child—as a young girl.
“He was a man of integrity, and I know he would not approve of people making money from copying and selling his work,” Sumler told me. “Especially his personal family pictures.”
Sartor and Harris disagree. “In his life, Mangum was very much an entrepreneur,” they wrote to The Assembly. “He was in the business of selling photographs and he recognized the intimate relationship between art and commerce.”
Duke’s Rubenstein Library, where the original glass negatives are housed, says it has neither recourse nor responsibility to obstruct the sales.
Kelly, who took over as Curator of the Library’s Archive of Documentary Arts last August, explained she understands the library’s role as a steward of the archive, not an arbiter of it. “Libraries are not supposed to be gatekeepers,” she explained. “That can become fraught very quickly.”
“Because they are in the public domain, I am not in a position to approve or disapprove,” says Kelly, referring to any use of the Mangum images.
But Duke’s approval is not merely tacit. Sartor and Harris have long been fixtures of the institution, and their sales have a literal stamp of approval from the university.
Camara Oscura prints are sold with a certificate of authenticity issued by Duke, and Abram advertises that each “personally printed” photograph is “accompanied by a certificate of authenticity signed by Sartor and Harris, bearing the stamp and authorization of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University, owner of the glass negatives.”
The certificate—reviewed by The Assembly—reads “approved and sanctioned by the Rubenstein Library.”
Naomi Nelson, director of the Rubenstein Library and Kelly’s boss, explained that these certificates and approvals are the library’s attempt to “translate scholarly traditions around citation from one medium to another.”
“Alex and Margaret also wanted to provide information about the creation of the prints, as well as to certify that a given print is a part of the series,” Nelson wrote. “They suggested that there be a document that would bring all of this information together. As the prints will be produced on demand over time, using a stamp as the Rubenstein’s ‘signature’ seemed practical.”
Some see different motivations. “Duke is most likely not doing that because they feel they have some kind of duty to inform the public of where the prints originated,” Deal told me. “They’re doing it because it may increase the value of the prints.”
Duke University maintains that the letter’s original purpose was to provide relevant information in a convenient way. However, in response to inquiries from The Assembly, Duke announced an end to the practice and stated that this type of letter would not be used again by the library.
“While the Rubenstein Library has done many partnerships over the years with publishers, museums and other creative partners,” wrote Erin Kramer, Duke’s Assistant Vice President for Media Relations & Public Affairs, “this was the only time that such a letter was produced and it will not be done again."
Duke also changed their policy on another important aspect of the sales during the reporting process.
Sartor and Harris verified to The Assembly that they had “chosen to donate 50% of any monies we receive back to the Duke Libraries.” Kelly confirmed that the Rubenstein has already received some revenue from the Spanish sales and anticipated more from New York and L.A. The money, according to Kelly, was intended to support the archive’s operations.
The Spanish gallery owner confirmed a fifty-fifty split in revenue, a fairly typical arrangement. If the structure of the U.S. sale is the same, that would have left fifty percent of the total revenue to be split between Sartor and Harris, and Duke University; around a million dollars if the sales are successful.
Duke University’s media team updated The Assembly on Tuesday. “To avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Kramer wrote, “the Rubenstein Library has declined the offer from Sartor and Harris to contribute a share of their proceeds from the sale of Mangum prints.”
On Friday evening, Sartor and Harris provided a statement to The Assembly:
“It has always been our goal to promote the artistic genius and legacy of photographer Hugh Mangum (1877-1922), especially for the benefit and inspiration of young persons. By mutual agreement with Duke University, and to avoid any appearance of financial motivation or conflict of interest, no funds from the Hugh Mangum edition will be received by Duke University. Alex Harris and Margaret Sartor have instead committed to donate all net proceeds they receive from the sale of the edition to support refugee resettlement in the US.”
When asked, Sartor and Harris clarified that all net proceeds meant both their profit, and the profit previously meant for Duke. They are still researching which organization might receive that funding. It remains unclear how the original sale was intended to benefit and inspire young persons.
Institutional partnerships, however, were not the only kind of collaboration that became pertinent to this story.
Throughout my reporting, one name kept popping up: Sarah Stacke.
Janette Greenwood, a history professor at Clark University who had curated a photography exhibit on a contemporary of Mangum’s, remembered seeing “a very interesting” talk on Mangum that Stacke had given at a conference some years ago.
A Google search for “Hugh Mangum” reveals Stacke’s essays for NPR and the photography magazine Aperture about her work with the collection. I found a 2015 Mangum exhibit I hadn’t known about at the Asheville Art Museum; Stacke had curated it. And after I interviewed John Edwin Mason, he sent me an email about Stacke. “She’s the true Mangum pioneer,” he said. “I don’t think she's gotten nearly the recognition that she deserves.”
Mangum’s work has been exhibited in and around Durham since the negatives were salvaged, but the first record The Assembly found of a formal exhibition at Duke came in 2009, when Margaret Sartor helped select three images as part of a larger showcase of photos at Duke’s Nasher Museum.
In the fall of 2010, Sartor taught a course at Duke called “Photography in Context.” Stacke—a recently relocated graduate student eager to learn more about her surroundings—says she selected Mangum from a classroom handout provided by Sartor that listed photographers’ collections held at the Rubenstein.
After making connections with the West Point on the Eno historic park, the Durham County Public Library, and the late local historian and Mangum expert David Page, Stacke learned about the idiosyncrasies of Mangum’s Penny Picture camera. “I was hooked,” Stacke says.
Stacke went on to serve as Sartor’s teaching assistant for the same course. On the syllabus, Stacke is tasked with a “presentation/discussion” on the work of Hugh Mangum.
By 2012, Stacke had curated a solo exhibit of Mangum’s work for the Center for Documentary Studies, given a curator’s talk presenting her research, and completed her thesis on Mangum with Sartor as her advisor. Stacke published part of her findings in The New York Times.
After Stacke’s graduation from the Master’s of Liberal Studies program, she continued her Mangum scholarship. Stacke and Sartor were co-curators for a Mangum exhibit with the Museum of Durham History billed as an expansion of Stacke’s 2012 show. Stacke was later listed as the sole curator and was interviewed alone by WUNC’s radio talk show, The State of Things, and CBS Evening News.
During this time, Stacke and Sartor both acknowledged that they were collaborating on a book. “I have always agreed you would be the author of the book and I would be the co-editor,” Sartor wrote to Stacke in November of 2014. Stacke says that this was her understanding of their collaboration as well, though in a recent email, Sartor told The Assembly that these roles had never been confirmed. Regardless, their understanding would soon deteriorate further.
In an email dated September 30, 2014, Sartor writes to Stacke: “Do you want me to drop out of the Mangum book or continue? Your call—it’s your book.” She continued: “The bottom line is I am not trying to move in on your Mangum territory—period—it’s settled.”
By early November, Stacke felt she did need to move forward alone.
“I have made the decision to move forward with the Hugh Magnum projects, including the book, independently,” she wrote to Sartor on November 3, 2014. “For me, the heart of this is not an issue of credit; it is an issue of our inability to agree upon a model for working together. You proposed ‘all or nothing’ and I've always wanted something in the middle. I realize we will have to talk about and agree upon credit for the work you have contributed.”
Sartor replied the same day. “Sarah, I believe you are making a mistake to write me in this way,” Sartor wrote. Later, in the email, she continued,“You know better than anyone where this book would be if you had tackled it on your own from the beginning. It is disingenuous now that the book is on the cusp of becoming the reality we have worked towards together to say ‘Thanks for all your help and goodbye.’”
“I do not agree to drop out of the Mangum book,” Sartor closed. “I am however very ready to talk about how to move ahead on the book we have been creating together.”
“As disagreements about the interpretation of our collaboration arose,” Stacke told The Assembly she felt that, “professional and personal boundaries were crossed, trust was breached, and the environment became increasingly toxic and unproductive for me.”
Sartor told The Assembly she “accepted Sarah’s unilateral decision” and that up until that point, “it was not my intention to pursue a book on my own.”
As Stacke moved forward, she ran into obstacles from university staff. After the library agreed to allow the Asheville Art Museum to retain three prints from Stacke’s 2015 exhibit, Lisa McCarty, Kelly’s predecessor at the Rubenstein Library, emailed Stacke with concerns: “While Mangum’s work is out of copyright and anyone could technically make prints themselves, we don’t endorse the production of derivatives of our collection material for the purpose of being added to another institution’s collection.”
In 2015, Stacke approached CDS about publishing her work as a book, which by now was a solo project. She was told by the center’s senior editor, Alexa Dilworth, that it wasn’t the right fit.
“In reflecting on the prospect of meeting with you to talk about your book-in-progress, I’ve felt increasingly uncomfortable,” Dilworth wrote. “Given the sensitivities of my workplace and my longtime relationships here—all the ways that work and life are interconnected—I can’t help but think it makes more sense for you to consider other avenues for publishing the book.”
Stacke would eventually secure a contract for her book on Mangum with Red Hook Editions, a photographer-owned-and-operated small press.
Stacke soon received confirmation—from Sumler, who had been approached for family photos—that Sartor and Harris were working on a book of their own with CDS, in concert with UNC Press. In that book, Alexa Dilworth would be hailed by Sartor as “our tireless and brilliant editor ... with whom we have worked on many gratifying projects.”
Dilworth told The Assembly that CDS is “very much focused on things with a significant in-house presence.” She added, “We decided, also, that we really loved the [Sartor and Harris] approach—the color scans of the actual plates as opposed to [Stacke’s] photographic reproductions.” Dilworth, according to the book’s Acknowledgements, “was the first to suggest” that they publish with CDS.
Sartor maintains that this was a transparent process. “Alex and I made sure that everyone we worked with from 2015 until the publication and exhibit opening at the Nasher Museum of Art in 2019 was made aware that Sarah was working on a book and that we were delighted that more information might be made available about Mangum.”
Self-Portraits of Hugh Mangum // Courtesy of the Hugh Mangum Photograph Archive, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University
Mark Simpson-Vos, the Editorial Director at UNC Press, commented that while Stacke was mentioned as an early collaborator in Sartor and Harris’s initial proposal, they could find no evidence that the Press knew of her book. “The editor who initially sponsored the project is no longer with UNC Press,” Simpson-Vos said, “but I can find no information to suggest anyone was aware that Stacke intended to write a book on Mangum’s work at the time we offered Sartor and Harris a contract for their manuscript, nor were there any discussions of the possibility when the project came before our in-house editorial committee.”
After book contracts were secured, there was a publicity push. In January of 2019, the Nasher Museum hosted an exhibit curated by Sartor and Harris with the same name as their book Where We Find Ourselves: The Photographs of Hugh Mangum, 1897–1922. I reviewed it for the online art magazine Hyperallergic. In a photo on the Nasher’s website, I am leaning against a wall in the back corner; it was standing room only.
Stacke’s book rollout was of a different kind. The collaborative model practiced by Red Hook meant that she was responsible for her own editing, design, funding (printing alone would cost her over $18,000), and publicity, among other things.
Stacke pitched The New Yorker’s venerable Photo Booth feature. “I don’t think it’s a fit for us,” the editor responded, but wrote again two months later to say that another editor had brought in an article on Mangum that focused on “Duke University’s book.” “I’m working with Duke University on the story,” the editor wrote, “but wanted to let you know about it before it went up as it came from a different channel.”
The Financial Times accidentally ran an article using images from Stacke’s press kit to promote Sartor and Harris’ book. “I am so sorry this is awful,” the editor wrote after Stacke contacted her about the mix-up. “I had been given the presumably competing book within the office and automatically assumed you were promoting the same book (it had the same image in it).”
Smithsonian Magazine ran a combined review in response to Stacke’s pitch that also conflated the two books. Stacke responded with a series of distressed emails to the editor. “Sartor was the adviser for my Master’s thesis, for which I researched and curated Mangum’s archive at Duke,” she wrote to the editor. Later she added, “It is agonizing to see her work promoted alongside of [sic] mine.”
Smithsonian Magazine reworked the article to distinguish the two books, but “because of the newsworthiness of the Duke exhibition,” the editor wrote, “we cannot remove mention of the exhibition from the published article. I hope you will find the solution a bearable one.”
The publication dates of the two books were neck and neck. Stacke’s book, Photos Day or Night: The Archive of Hugh Mangum was published in December 2018. Sartor and Harris’ book was published in February of 2019.
Sartor acknowledged Stacke only once in Where We Find Ourselves.
“One student, Sarah Stacke, worked extensively with the Hugh Mangum Photographs Collection, and for a few years during and after her graduate studies, she and I worked together on a number of things, including a possible book about Hugh Mangum,” wrote Sartor. “In 2013, it became clear that our approaches to Mangum had begun to diverge, and we went our separate ways.”
Stacke’s research, exhibitions, and writing are not cited anywhere in the text.
Stacke does not acknowledge Sartor or Harris in her book at all.
“As a graduate student at Duke, I developed a unique framework for studying and interpreting the Mangum Collection,” says Stacke. “When I entered into a collaboration with Margaret [Sartor], it was with the reasonable expectation that this framework, interpretation, and related material, both personal and historic in nature, would not be used by Margaret independently of our collaboration without my permission or claimed as her own. Margaret broke this agreement.”
Sartor told The Assembly Stacke’s statement was “false and defamatory.”
“On several occasions in May and June of 2021, Sarah Stacke sought out a distinguished scholar at Duke and made this same assertion,” wrote Sartor in an email response. “This scholar told Stacke that she did not agree with Stacke’s assertion, and she could not validate Stacke’s claim.”
Wesley Hogan, the former director of CDS, confirmed she was the scholar to which Sartor referred. “Not present in their collaboration, it is not possible for me to judge who developed which specific ideas under the auspices of the Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies program at Duke,” Hogan wrote to The Assembly, “and this is often the case for such collaborative graduate work. After reviewing the relevant material, I concluded that both books examine the work of Hugh Mangum in dynamic, distinct, ways, which has opened up an important set of portals to bring his work into greater public discussion and appreciation.”
"I found comfort and healing in the conversations I had with Wesley Hogan,” Stacke responded. “Our meetings were centered around a plan to implement guardrails that would inhibit imbalances of power and protect future students from experiences like mine. I am left with a sincere confidence that sharing my story is contributing to the creation of safer and more equitable environments at Duke. We did discuss the approaches to the books, and I listened to Wesley’s opinion."
One last chapter of Mangum’s story at Duke came, once again, covered in dust. “We were totally shocked,” said Margaret Nygard’s eldest daughter Jenny, as she recounted the discovery of two additional boxes of Mangum negatives in the attic of her family home.
Margaret Nygard was an environmentalist and is often credited with saving the Eno River. It was the group founded in part by Nygard—alongside several other righteous, old-school activists—that salvaged Mangum’s boxes of negatives. When Nygard passed away suddenly in 1995, her three children sifted through a lifetime of papers and keepsakes.
The attic discovery would result in almost 200 negatives being added to the roughly 800 that were already housed at the Rubenstein and available via Duke’s online repository.
After the Nygard siblings discovered the negatives, they immediately called the library. They also called Sartor and Harris, whom they had known for many years through the Duke community. “We knew they were working on a book that would come out very soon,” said Kerstin Nygard, also a daughter of Margaret Nygard.
According to Kerstin, Sartor and Harris spoke with the library, “to see if they could come down and photograph [the negatives] at Duke. The answer was no. They had to be acquisitioned.”
But the Nygards knew this was a huge addition to Mangum’s body of work and wanted researchers to see them immediately. They scheduled an appointment to deliver the glass plates to the Rubenstein on the following Monday and separately called Sartor and Harris. “If you want to come see them,” the Nygards recall saying, “come over now and look at them.”
“We asked for and received permission to photograph all the negatives that day,” wrote Harris in Where We Find Ourselves, “so we might consider them for this book.”
“Whatever happened to it before it got to Duke,” Kelly said, “happened before it got to Duke.”
A year later, in November of 2016, Stacke inquired about the new Mangum materials, which by this point numbered 249 images. Stacke was told by then-Curator Lisa McCarty that “we were only able to receive the material under the condition that it not be made public for two years.”
“I really don’t like to make commitments like this to donors,” McCarty continued, “However, the material was in desperate need of conservation, and we felt that if we didn’t take it at the time it was offered, precious information could have been lost.”
The Deed of Gift for the Nygard Accession reads that the materials “will not be cataloged for a period of two years. During this time the materials will be open for research in accordance with the regulations and procedures of the Library and the Library will work with Alex Harris & Margaret Sartor to facilitate their research for their forthcoming book project.”
Kerstin says that though she and her brother Erik did urge the library to make their addition to the collection available for Sartor and Harris’ use, they did not intend that to be to the exclusion of others. “That wouldn’t be ethical at all,” Kerstin said. “It should be available to anyone who had interest or legitimate research.”
For their part, the library also maintains that the deed did not exclude other researchers, but was intended to balance the expectations of the donors with the realities of the processing and conservation demands of this fragile accession.
When the negatives arrived at Duke, they were immediately quarantined, spending four months in cold storage due to active silverfish in the Nygard attic. The time, money, and painstaking labor that it takes to receive, catalog, and conserve a collection like the Hugh Mangum Photograph Collection is tremendous. Some of the negatives were in perilous condition. Photographic emulsions were flaking. Paper was stuck to the glass. Whole slides were fused by weight and humidity and will be wed the rest of their material lives.
But by February 2017, the conservation was completed.
In August of that year, these images were scanned at the request of a patron. (Even if she knew who this patron was, the current curator Kelly told The Assembly, she would not be able to share that information.) The scanning preceded the publication of Sartor and Harris’ book, which includes many images of these additional plates.
The now-scanned images should have been accessible upon request to anyone, via a computer in the Rubenstein’s reading room.
But in May 2018, Stacke inquired again after the newly accessioned items, in advance of an imminent visit to the Rubenstein. McCarty wrote back that they were “not available digitally.”
Kelly told me that there were “some personality conflicts” with the collection. “My understanding is that the last accession came in, and originally the requested requirement was that it would be held for only certain people to look at. The library’s answer to this was no, because we are public-facing.”
When asked why a Rubenstein employee would have denied a researcher access after 2017, Kelly responded, “Got me.”
McCarty did not respond to requests for comment. She is currently Assistant Professor of Photography at Southern Methodist University. She completed an M.F.A. at Duke, and published a book about photographer William Gedney, whose archive is held at the Rubenstein. Sartor is a co-author.
“[T]he digital scans should have been made available to the researcher,” Kelly clarified in a later email. “That was fixed in July 2021 as soon as I was made aware that this had occurred. We are actively working to be better communicators and transparent in our workflows.”
The digital scans of the newly accessioned Mangum images have still not been made available via Duke’s online repository. This, Kelly said, was not a result of malicious intent, but rather a happenstance of workflow, the repositioning of priorities due to the onslaught of COVID-19, and a move to support research requests remotely. She added, “That problem is being fixed promptly.”
“It is my understanding that there was no ill intention by the library to keep anyone from seeing the archive,” Kelly said, “but we may have unintentionally reinforced that belief.”
Upon request in late July, I received access to scans of the newly acquired 249 Mangum images. I was required to register as a “researcher” and provided my credentials as a faculty member at a liberal arts college. While you can register as an “independent researcher,” “institution/affiliation” is a required category.
At least six of the images I viewed are included in Sartor and Harris’ U.S. and Spanish sales.
In an email to The Assembly, Sartor pointed to the connection she had made between Mangum and the celebrated, Durham-reared Civil Rights activist Pauli Murray as a distinctive aspect of her scholarship. Sartor identified four of Murray’s relatives in Mangum’s archive.
However, in three of these identifications—the portraits of Leah, Mary Jane, and Agnes Fitzgerald—Sartor was working with access to an image of a plate that others didn’t have.
That certainly affects Stacke, as she worked on her own Mangum book. But it also affects others. Martha Sumler, for instance, did not have access to the photographs—which include portraits of her grandfather and perhaps other family members—until July 30 of this year after, in the process of my reporting, I conveyed her request to the Rubenstein Library.
“Historically, archives have been created and maintained by powerful institutions,” says Stacke, who teaches a course on archives at the International Center for Photography. “Limiting those stories to the imaginations, beliefs, motivations, and perspectives of a very small group of people is without question a dangerous practice.”
The Nygards hold Sartor and Harris in high regard, but the suggestion that they may have inadvertently contributed to an act of exclusion is “very distressing,” according to Kerstin.
“Everything that has been given of Mother’s is given so other people can use it as a resource,” Jenny told me.
“This collection is a shining piece of this community. It’s not for academicians to argue over,” Kerstin said. “It’s for the public. Just like the Eno River State Park. It’s for everyone.”
Stacke was direct when asked about Sartor and Harris’ sale. It is “utterly in contradiction to the way Mangum approached his photography practice,” she told me. His impromptu studios, she continued, “were accessible to an economically diverse set of patrons. I would argue that fine art galleries are not.”
Stacke also sells Mangum prints with her book. Buyers have the option, for $130, to add an 8x10 black-and-white print to their purchase. In this, Stacke has the express permission of Martha Sumler, in whose private collection the images reside. The prints appear in much the same format that Mangum would have printed them in.
The images are not uncomplicated. One of them portrays what appears to be a group of prisoners, possibly a chain gang, comprised entirely of Black men. And while the men are addressing the camera—some of them visibly smiling—their incarceration troubles the meaning of their captured image.
Photograph by Hugh Mangum, c. 1900. Courtesy and property of Martha Sumler
Stacke tells me that she continues to refine her own thinking about the sale of images, but believes the structure of the sale is important. “[S]ignificant efforts should be made to honor the tenets of the photographer’s practice,” she says.
“Odd, isn’t it,” wrote Maurice Wallace, now a professor at Rutgers University, who contributed an essay to Stacke’s Photos Day or Night, “that at precisely the time governments and national arts museums are returning expropriated art works to their first production contexts, the Hugh Mangum Collection is being sold away from its own, after so long?”
(Disclosure: Wallace sat on my committee through my doctoral exams at Duke University, where I got my Ph.D. I did not meet Stacke, Sartor, or Harris during my time at Duke.)
Wallace reminded me that the name of the North Durham neighborhood Bahama (pronounced “ba-hey-ma”) is a combination of the names of prominent Black and white families that occupied the area at the turn of the 20th century—the Basses, the Hawleys, and, yes, the Mangums. Mangum Street still runs through the heart of the city.
“Mangum’s photographs constitute something of a family album,” Wallace continued, “There’s something somewhat unsettling about the sale of a family album where there is not benefit to the family.”
My conversation with Wallace made me think of a detail of Mangum’s photographic practice. He developed his negatives with water that he had sourced from a stream near his family’s home, the Black Meadow Branch, which feeds into the Eno River. No matter how many trips Mangum took or circulations his images see, they are indelibly marked by his time and place.
When I asked Martha Sumler if there was anything else she wanted me to know about her grandfather, she highlighted the sweetness of the letters he wrote to his loved ones when he was far from home, the ease he imparted to those who sat in front of his camera. “Also,” she said, “he had a sense of humor that shows in many of his photos.”
As Stacke and others have noted, what is unusual about Mangum’s body of work, particularly for this period, is that many of his portraits are playful. Men drape arms around each other and hold bottles of booze prominently up to the camera’s lens; women pop out of barrels holding umbrellas and straight faces; there are dapper dogs and bright-eyed babies. Many of the sitters are cheeky and voguing. You get the sense that Mangum was a ham, and invited his clientele to mirror that cheese.
The portraits of the two girls that Sartor and Harris are selling are nameless. Their trajectories are unknown—the lives they lived or that were cut short. The high-dollar sale of their sober, oversized images threatens to create a commodity of them and fill that absence with ownership instead of belonging.
That uncertainty about what might have been mirrors Stacke’s journey at Duke University. She spent nearly $25,000 (even with scholarships that covered more than half the cost) for a degree that was, amongst other things, intended to confer access. Instead, she found herself excluded from institutional resources.
In October of 2012, Stacke showed a Mangum plate in her Curator’s talk for CDS. It is the cover image for the promo card she uses to promote the exhibit. The photo is a banger.
A passel of white people pose under a canopy of sweetgum, red oak, and bald cypress trees. In the front of the cluster are barefoot children, looking a bit feral. Behind them sit presumable parents—mustachioed men and ladies in puffed sleeves—looking variously droll, a bit suspicious, and even whimsical. There’s a baby in arm, and another child on a knee.
Standing on slightly higher ground, and tugging the frame just a little wider to the right, is a Black woman. Her lips are pressed together and her head is cocked to one side.
“For me the big question of this picture is, who decided to have the Black woman included in the picture?” said Stacke in her talk.
“Was it the family? Or was it Mangum? She certainly, I think, knows she’s in that picture. And Mangum, of course, knows that she’s in that picture,” she continued. “What I find so mesmerizing about this picture is that it does represent the racial hierarchy of its time. But because she’s in the picture, it’s so easy for me to imagine a different configuration of these individuals. I mean, she could be standing with them, she could be standing among them, or she could just walk right on by.”
In the recording of this talk, you can hear the audience audibly react.
In 2019, Sartor posted the same image to her Instagram account to publicize her show at the Nasher—a small sampling of almost 1,000 available images. “[O]ur eye can’t help but be drawn to the lady who stands alone ... it is ... most of all the recognition passing between photographer and subject that is evident only to them,” she wrote.
Two years later, the art dealer MB Abram posted the same image on his Instagram—now one of 32 prints for sale. “It is unknown whether the lone African American woman on the left side of the frame was meant to be included in the portrait,” he wrote as a caption. “Her presence, however, transforms what might otherwise be a routine family picture into a mysterious and fascinating composition.”
There’s an argument that this shared observation is just the most obvious part of the photograph. But in a treasure trove of hundreds of stunning images, at an institution with under-examined power dynamics, and in a vacuum of citation, the similarities in selection and interpretation leave more questions than answers.
When public access is maintained by powerful, private institutions, how do they affect transparent processes and prevent negligence, oversight, and abuse?
What happens when the slippery and largely-unscrutinized relationships between advisor and advisee, or established senior colleague and precarious junior, break down? Can and should universities offer more support and oversight?
How can scholars enact ethical uses of out-of-copyright work, especially as more and more images are poised to enter the public domain? Who should profit and what do those benefits yield?
And finally, what does it look like to use today’s resources to honor the legacies of bygone artists? How does one take image makers and their subjects into account? Especially when we know little or nothing about them.
I talked to Visser and Williams, who frequently collaborate with each other, about a question I couldn’t shake from my mind. What would it look like to present these young women and Mangum’s other photographic subjects in a way that was more like the photographer’s life—a life in which he made himself mobile, easy, available?
My favorite idea, from a slew they offered, was an experiential exhibit in which community members would step into a booth, or up to a camera’s viewfinder, to see Mangum’s photographs sequentially, as he would have seen them—encountering people, one after the other in each other’s context, each holding still in front of the camera’s lens for a single flash in time.
In such a presentation, the portraits of those two girls would be buttressed by their communities and their contemporaries, enshrined in all the solemnity and silliness that Durham and its environs were dishing out.
With no small amount of relish, Visser considered the idea. “Now that would be new work!” she said.
Brenna M. Casey is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Kenyon College. She holds an M.F.A. from the University of Notre Dame and a Ph.D. from Duke. A former faculty member at both Duke and Wake Forest Universities, her research focuses on 19th and early 20th century American literature and visual culture.
Update, 8/29/21: A previous version of this story identified Red Hook Publishing as "now-defunct." While it has undergone changes in leadership and operation, it is not closed. That phrase has been removed.