The Clements Library website includes events, exhibits, subject guides, newsletter issues, library staff, and more.

Home » Public Programs » Online Exhibits » Framing Identity: Representations of Empowerment and Resilience in the Black Experience » Documenting Communities: African American Photographers in Michigan

Documenting Communities: African American Photographers in Michigan

Documenting Communities: African American Photographers in Michigan

“There are certain groups and combinations of facts and features everywhere met with in the journey of life, some pleasant and some sad, which possess in large measure the quality of pictures. They illustrate and body forth phrases of real life common to all, and translate into living forms and colours the outgrowths of the inner life of the Soul.

They stand boldly out from the broad canvas of human experience, and fringe the horizon of our existence like the many shapes and many coloured clouds against a summer sky.”

Frederick Douglass

Age of Pictures

A community can influence the shape of our Identity.  It’s where we develop relationships, participate in social groups, labor to sustain economies, or contribute to civic action.  Photography is a form of recordkeeping that documents the collected memories and histories of a place.

The photographer’s role as the documenter can vary depending on their relationship with the community.  They can become active collaborators in setting the scene of an event or a watchful observer capturing life moments as they occur in real-time. This page explores the work of African American photographers, the Goodridge Brothers and Harvey C. Jackson, and how they participated in documenting rural or urban life in Michigan.

The Goodridge Brothers: Innovators in Documentary Photography
Two men and a woman.  G.J. Goodridge
York, Pa.  1847 – 1855

The Goodridge Brothers owned and operated one of the first Black photography studios in the country.   Glenalvin Goodridge founded the first studio in York, Pennsylvania in 1847. The business was known for experimenting with progressive photographic technologies and techniques, including daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes.
The Goodridge Brothers migrated the family business to the Saginaw, Michigan area in 1863. Wallace and William Goodridge expanded the business by documenting the industrial trade, cultural events, and developments of the region. These photographs create a record of community identity that represents Saginaw’s economic and cultural developments.

Man Sharpening a Crosscut Saw


The Goodridge Brothers experimented with documentary photography by printing candid images of lumber workers and city scenes on stereocards. Stereocards were a popular home entertainment device that produces a 3-D image of the subject when seen through a stereoviewer. This technology animated the subject within the photograph by creating a heightened virtual experience of life in Saginaw.

Backview of the Washington Street Fire

One particular interest of the Goodridge studio was documenting natural disasters that affected the town. The photographers would capture stereoscopic images of Saginaw River floods and other destructive occurrences. This type of photography is an early form of photojournalism, which records an objective, emotional narrative about how the community responded to natural disasters and demonstrate resilience.

Harvey C. Jackson: Cinematic Depictions of Detroit
A Conference Beginning of Older Boys and Older Girls in Detroit Auspices of Y.W.C.A. and Y.M.C.A. 
March 23 – 25, 1923

Harvey C. Jackson was an active member of Detroit’s African American community and established the city’s first African American photography studio in 1915. He collaborated with social groups and community organizations to create cinematic scenes of everyday life. Jackson’s photographs display concepts of collective memory within community identity by documenting shared activities and actions that are important to the group.

Burning the Mortgage of the Phyllis Wheatley Home
January 4, 1915


Mortgage burning ceremonies are a tradition established within the Christian churches to dedicate a sanctuary, educational or communal building after paying off the mortgage debt.  This practice evolved to include community organizations holding their mortgage burning ceremonies within churches to commemorate their last mortgage payment.

This photo documents the mortgage burning celebration of the Phyllis Wheatley Home for Aged Colored Ladies established in 1897. Its mission was to improve the status of African Americans in society by providing lodging for women and the elderly, job referrals, childcare, and other civic activities. Harvey Jackson documented this occasion with women holding threads attached to the mortgage before burning the document. The threads symbolically connect each person to the mortgage to create a single community action in burning the document.

American Red Cross Society, Workroom 156,  Ebenezer A.M.E. Church

Community identity created through civic actions demonstrates shared values for the common good. The Historic Ebenezer AME Church and the American Red Cross Society have a long history of providing humanitarian support to people in need within their local communities. Ebenezer AME Church, founded in 1871, has a mission of activism by providing food, clothing, and shelter to the sick and poor.
The American Red Cross Society has a similar humanitarian mission by training women as nurses and nurse’s aids to assist in combating national emergencies, such as the 1918 influenza pandemic. Jackson photographed the American Red Cross Society nurses sewing clothes and knitting socks in the Historic Ebenezer AME Church workroom around 1918. The nurses are wearing the Grey Nurses uniform or their own clothing while participating in their charitable efforts.