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Laura Wexler : The Paris Exposition
Laura Wexler What I understand is that when Rebecca West went to the Paris Exposition of 1900, where Johnston showed the photographs of Hampton, what she learned from them was that the black man's problems are over and everything is solved. And the people in Johnston's pictures and the people running the school who hired Johnston and Johnston herself, I think, wish to believe that this education will work, that their faith in it and in the American system means that everything, if not is, will be solved. The problem is that this is the time of Jim Crow, the time of vicious violence and lynchings ri-- rising in incidence, and so there's a poignance to the vision. What Johnston photographs is the vision.

Dubois is there at the same time and he actually took photographs also which were also exhibited along with Johnston's photographs at the American Negro Life Exhibition. It's not all clear that Johnston and Dubois ever connect. It's not at all clear what Johnston learns from going to Paris other than that she's a great woman photographer and that these are wonderful pictures. Other things Johnston exhibited in Paris were photographs of the Washington, D.C. school system, which was also an experiment in progressive education. That is a segregated school system. So that exhibition is very rich, but you don't get a sense from Johnston that it gave her a deeper insight into the real contradictions of her culture. You get a sense from her that it gave her a way to see for herself a way to make exquisitely beautiful photographs to show what she sees to the rest of the world, but not a way to further question what it is that she sees, as Dubois was doing at the time.

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