Another Rediscovered Southern Artist
Another Rediscovered Southern ArtistAugust 25, 2011
Like newly rediscovered New Orleans painter Noel Rockmore, who was featured in the Feb/March 2011 issue, Richard Samuel Roberts is an artist who had been all but forgotten until a collection of his work resurfaced after almost half a century.
Born in post-Civil War South Carolina in 1880, Roberts was a self-taught black photographer who witnessed some of the most interesting economic, political, and social change in US History. During the 1920s and 1930s, he worked from 4am until noon as a custodian at the US Post Office in Columbia, South Carolina. When the workday was done, he headed to the second-floor photography studio he maintained a few blocks away, where he spent 15 years documenting the black community in and around Columbia. After his death in 1936, family members stored a portion of Roberts' sizeable collection of negatives, some 3,000 glass plates, in a crawl space beneath the house, where they remained undisturbed until 1977.
According to the researchers at the University of South Carolina, who received the negatives and published the restored images in a 1986 book entitled A True Likeness: The Black South of Richard Samuel Roberts 1920-1936, despite the physical condition of the pictures, all of which were more than forty years old, their clarity, their meticulous but natural composition, and the dignity of the subjects were readily apparent."
I recently came into a copy of this hard-to-find book, and I felt like I was discovering something truly special so I can only imagine how Roberts' descendents must've felt when they saw his work reach a wider audience. Everytime I look at the images, I feel transported to a time when the South was recovering from one war and preparing for another. Aren't we all so lucky that people hang onto art and documents and heirlooms so that noteworthy people and historic work are never forgotten, even if their legacy might take a little while to surface?