First you see the faces: the group portraits of college fraternities, football players, soldiers and wedding parties. And then the individual studies, many painstakingly posed, of men, women and children: a little boy dressed like a policeman with a toy pistol in a holster on his hip, the matron in her Sunday best, that mustachioed man dressed for a night on the town, looking swank but for the little mutt dog standing at his feet.
Together, these images create a familiar composite portrait: America, from the first half of the 19th century through the 1960s.
But it's a portrait with a decided edge because the subjects in all of these photographs are African-American. Many of these people were slaves when their pictures were taken. Or they had been slaves, or were the immediate descendents of slaves.
The cost and consequences of slavery in American life provides an unmistakable background hum for Shadow and Substance: African American Images from The Burns Archive, now on view at the Indiana State Museum.
Dr. Stanley B. Burns, a New York City ophthalmologist, is one of the world's foremost collectors of photographs. Since 1975, he has amassed over 800,000 vintage prints, a collection considered to be the most comprehensive private archive in the world.
As the title indicates, the images chosen for Shadow and Substance deal with the African-American experience, beginning at about the time of photography's invention in the 1840s and extending up to 1968, which, by choice or happenstance, could be considered the end of the so-called civil rights era.
On one level, it is tempting to view the various portraits here as a kind of parallel universe. The people portrayed are engaged in many of the pastimes - from family parties to hard, physical labor - familiar to whatever period of American history they happened to live through.
But look closer and a difference is discernible. You can see it in the 1927 picture of Mississippi Delta flood refugees. Roughly half the men in the picture are white - they're standing and smiling, many are in various uniforms. Black people make up the other half of the picture; they are sitting in the lower half of the frame; they look exhausted. None wear uniforms.
Then there's the 1880 image of three white "salesmen" posing with their "driver," a black boy. The men have the thick look of material prosperity. They all smoke cigars. The boy looks dangerously out of context; he's holding a fishing pole and frowning slightly. This is not where he wants to be.
Underlining the subliminal violence of these images are two photographs of lynchings. The first, in 1893, shows a crowd of 10,000 gathered to see a man named Harry Smith burned at the stake in Paris, Texas. The other, dated 1935, shows the body of Rubin Stacey hanging from a tree near Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. White men in straw hats look on, enjoying a casual smoke. In the foreground, a little white girl gazes impassively at whoever is taking the picture.
Although most of the images in Shadows and Substanc are of greater subtlety - and even grace - than these, they are no less powerful. This is a revelatory show.
The exhibit continues at the Indiana State Museum, 650 W. Washington St., through May 17. For information, call 317-232-1637 or go to indianmuseum.org.