Daily Art Moment: Payne Studio

A black-and-white photograph of a young African American woman standing turned to the right in a three-quarter view, head facing forward, gazing directly at the viewer. She wears a white, floor-length gown with high neck and long sleeves. Her hair is swept up, piled on the crown of her head, and adorned with several flowers. Her expression is neutral, her head slightly tilted to the left. She holds a large, full bouquet of roses, carnations, and ferns whose long stems are tied with a ribbon. The flowers are angled down toward the floor while the stems point up and away from the viewer. The bottom of her gown ends in several tiers of ruffled flounces. Behind the figure is a painted backdrop depicting drapery and part of a stone mantel. A wide, tan border surrounds the long, rectangular portrait, showing bumped and creased corners and staining at bottom. A handwritten inscription reads: “1st blk. graduate // from high school // in Hastings, Nebraska // about 8 yrs. before grandma Nonie”. A logo reading “Payne Hastings, Nebr” is printed in the bottom right corner of the border.

“Most U.S. colleges, universities, and high schools (and, increasingly, preschools and grade schools!) hold commencement ceremonies in May and June. Photography has long played a part in commemorating the celebrations that mark these significant educational milestones. This year, cameras are especially important, since they’ll be used to help graduates participate in online commencement ceremonies, while photographs of members of the Class of 2020 will be particularly meaningful: They will be shared with friends and relatives who can’t gather together and will be very helpful to future historians who will study social and cultural behavior during the pandemic.

This exceptional studio portrait from our collection, made sometime around 1900, may first appear to be a wedding portrait. A personal note on the mount adds important background information: “1st blk graduate from high school in Hastings, Nebraska, about 8 years before grandma Nonie.” Hastings, located in south-central Nebraska near the Platte River, hosted a small but thriving African American community beginning in the later nineteenth century. This photograph celebrates a significant educational achievement in this young woman’s life during an era when only about ten percent of all teenagers in the country graduated from high school.

Please use your devices—smartphones, iPads, homemade pinhole cameras, DSLRs—to record all of your graduation experiences this year. They will spark both present-day and future conversations about how we adapted to difficult circumstances and celebrated life’s meaningful moments. Congratulations to the Class of 2020 from your friends at the Portland Art Museum; we honor your achievements and resilience!”

Julia Dolan, The Minor White Curator of Photography

Payne Studio (American, active late 19th and early 20th centuries). Untitled (Graduate in White Dress with White Flowers), ca. 1900. Gelatin silver print. Museum Purchase: Photography Acquisition Fund, 2015.121.2

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