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Family celebration planned for Holsinger portrait exhibition

If you’ve been mesmerized by the images of Black Charlottesville residents from the Holsinger Studio Portrait Project’s exhibition at the University of Virgina, here’s your chance to join a celebration.

The Family Celebration is scheduled for 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday at UVa’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, which is where "Visions of Progress: Portraits of Dignity, Style and Racial Uplift" can be seen through June 24.

"We’re throwing ourselves a party, and we want everyone to come," said John Edwin Mason, director of the Holsinger Studio Portrait Project and chief exhibition curator.

The "Visions of Progress" exhibition has been attracting national attention from PBS’ "NewsHour" and other sources, Mason said, giving more people an opportunity to linger over images of Black residents displaying style, dignity and power, instead of in stereotypical depictions of suffering and poverty.

The images come from among 10,000 glass plate negatives in the Small Special Collections Library’s Holsinger Studio Collection, many of which were portraits commissioned between the 1890s and 1920s. More than 600 of the portraits depict Black residents of Central Virginia, including business and community leaders, families and children.

"We are really happy, because we had two objectives," Mason said. "One is to get these beautiful portraits out in the world. We wanted to change the way that history looked visually. We also wanted to change the way people saw that history.

"These portraits invite us to examine the rich, full lives they were living despite Jim Crow. You can’t see Jim Crow in these pictures. You don’t see oppression in these pictures. These are people who will not let oppression define them."

Sunday’s event gives visitors a chance to linger over the images and sense the achievement and celebration they record. There will be games for children and, for visitors of all ages, an opportunity to pose for old-school tintype photographs taken by Em White and her assistant.

The tintypes are free, but registration is required on Eventbrite, as the portraits take some time to capture. In another nod to the history of photography, a portrait studio also will print modern cartes-de-visite in the main gallery.

Visitors who are fascinated by the garments worn in the photographs can plan to see the Historic Clothing Collection show-and-tell session from 1 to 3 p.m. with collection manager Marcy Linton.

The Free Book Bus will be available from 1 to 3 p.m., and there will be storytime readings from local celebrities that focus on photography in general and portraiture in particular.

Tweens and teens can join "Women Making Books" curator Annyston Pennington for a Zine Jam workshop. Look for Holsinger Studio coloring books, snacks and other treats.

Mason, an associate professor of history at UVa and a documentary photographer, is thrilled to see the reception that the portraits, and the ideas they embody, have received since "Visions of Progress" opened. Descendants of some of the portrait sitters have attended and found themselves moved by the images.

"It has been one of the most satisfying moments of my time at UVa," Mason said. "It has been so overwhelmingly well received by Black and white."

The medium of photography gave Holsinger’s subjects a way to depict themselves. It continues to give observers a way to enter different depictions and viewpoints and consider how subjects wanted to be perceived.

"Photography gives us permission to stare," Mason said. "These portraits, which may seem simple, every time I look at them, I see something new."

The Special Collections Library is at 170 McCormick Road. Parking in Central Grounds Parking Garage is free. Learn more about the event at


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