Dozens and dozens of enlarged photographs are stacked in boxes on tables at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. Part of a special exhibit, they depict ordinary black Arkansans with a scattering of prominent figures, dating back to the last decades of Jim Crow.
“Unboxing Ralph Armstrong: A Community History Project” is the title of the exhibit, which runs through January at the Little Rock Museum, a beacon of black heritage and culture. Ralph Waldo Armstrong III, who died in 2006 at the age of 81, amassed an archive totaling thousands of his photos taken over more than half a century. Her family donated the treasure to the center, which opened in 2008 at Ninth Street and Broadway.
The boxes are intended to be interactive, as a note states: “Please sit down and look through the photos. If you recognize anyone in the photo or can identify their surroundings, please complete a form using the pencil provided .”
Another participatory feature is an alcove where visitors are invited to take selfies in a studio like Armstrong might have used. They can sit on a red sofa looking through a large picture frame or strike another pose. A smart camera provides an instant image of the photo taken.
Visitors learn that Armstrong was born in North Little Rock in 1925. Enlisted in the Navy during World War II, he spent some time on Eniwetok Atoll in the South Pacific. After the war, he studied at the American Conservancy of Music in Chicago. He landed an audition in 1946 with the Grant Park Symphony, but was turned down, obviously because he was black.
Turning to another form of art, he took a one-year course at the Chicago School of Photography. Then he married another Arkansas native, Ruby Joshua Stanton, who had come to Chicago to study nursing. They returned to Little Rock in 1951 to raise two sons and a daughter. He worked for 37 years as a postman while continuing his activity as a photographer, gradually concentrating on portraits.
An exhibit case of Armstrong’s early equipment gives an idea of the complexity of photography in the age of motion pictures, especially before 35mm cameras became dominant.
The display features a German-made twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera body of the type superseded by single-lens reflex (SLR) models in the 1960s. A light meter serves to remind older viewers of the difficulties in achieve proper exposure of the film before the mechanism is built into the cameras. A bulky strobe light with a purse-sized battery box was another burden.
One publication describes the uplifting role Armstrong played as a black photographer in Arkansas during the last years of legal segregation, as well as his preferred way of working:
“Ralph Armstrong is a perfect example of ownership behind the camera. He photographed the African American community in Pulaski County for over 50 years between 1951 and 2006. During that time he was able to capture professional organizations and civics, individuals, families, and structures within the African American community that would soon be torn down. Like many photographers before him, he used photography to promote social change, allowing people to gain insight of a community that is often overlooked.
“Armstrong allowed his subjects to speak for themselves, instead of determining the pose, as many photographers do. That way, he explained, ‘You get a sense of how your subjects want to show up, and you work to capture that for them.’ ‘”
The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, 501 W. Ninth St., Little Rock, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Free entry. The center is part of the Arkansas Department of Heritage. For more information, visit mosaictemplarscenter.com or call (501) 683-3593.
- Templar Mosaic Cultural Center
- 501 W. Ninth St., Little Rock
- Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday
- Free entry.
- The center is part of the Arkansas Department of Heritage. For more information, visit mosaictemplarscenter.com or call (501) 683-3593.