'Time Capsules That Can Hold So Much Emotion and Power'

Franklin Hall Photography Exhibit Showcases Black Student Life Today, in the 1960s

Two Media and Journalism students and Associate Professor David Foster are bringing a fresh perspective to a late 1960s photo collection focused on Black student life at Kent State University.  

Lafayette Tolliver, a 1971 alumnus who pursued a degree in photojournalism, was an active photographer for Black student organizations during his university years. In 2014, he generously donated more than a thousand photographs to Kent State.

The same year, Tolliver invited Foster, who specializes in multimedia and photojournalism, to an exhibit showcasing his work. Since then, Foster says he has consistently looked through Tolliver's collection, envisioning the curation of an exhibition. Recognizing the value of diverse perspectives, Foster actively engaged his students, leading to the exhibit titled "Rooted Layers,” which is currently on display on the third floor of Franklin Hall, home to the School of Media and Journalism and the School of Emerging Media and Technology. 

Finished gallery

Foster collaborated with students Khalid Mitcham, '24 (journalism major), and Lauren McElrath, '24 (digital media production major). The vision for "Rooted Layers" began to take shape through portraits that not only illustrate Tolliver’s life but also provide a unique and intimate glimpse into Black student life during a pivotal time in history.

Tolliver’s photographs, which are housed in University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives, were acquired and initially processed by former University Archivist Lae’l Hughes-Watkins. In 2022, the entire collection of photos was digitized, making them easily available through online access. View the digital archive of Tolliver’s photos on Special Collections and Archives’ website.

“I feel sometimes student Black lives, especially when you talk about Black lives in the past, they have to be spoken about with this huge civil rights movement or with this huge impact. But it's just the simplicity that’s cool,” said McElrath.

 “This is literally what it looks like. And I feel like it was a very raw and real interpretation, where it's not this narrative of people having to do these exceptional things to be seen as people. They're just people.” 

Foster instructed students to select images that resonated with them. He then worked with them to curate the specifics of the exhibit. During the curation period, Foster emphasized the importance of authentic voices behind exhibits.  

Khalid Thompson looks at photos

“When Khalid and Lauren expressed interest, we started going through the photos, and I nudged them to take on curating it, and it kind of went from there,” he said. 

Exploring innovative approaches, Foster experimented with the idea of using artificial intelligence to reimagine the images in a modern context. However, Mitcham proposed an alternative idea: capturing present-day Black student life, creating his own version of "Rooted Layers.” 

“I really want to make sure I do justice to Mr. Tolliver’s work because of how much heart he put into his photos,” said Mitcham. “I even put too much stress on myself and began to doubt my abilities as a photographer. Professor Foster saw this and immediately shut it down, and it helped me realize my potential. I ended up choosing to include photos that I have taken in the past and recently as part of my portion of the gallery. Similar to Mr. Tolliver’s work, I wanted to incorporate photos of Black student life on Kent’s campus during my years of being a Kent State student.” 

Painting side by side with photos

Alongside the images, the exhibition displays a painting by McElrath, which draws inspiration from Tolliver's photos and reflects modern Black life on campus. Tolliver's picture of students sitting on a car served as the inspiration. 

“The piece that really stuck out to me the most was a portrait of two guys, and there's a car, and one is on the car, and the other was in the car, and they just look so cool,” said McElrath, “And it's like the little things in it too. It's their posture, just the fact that one is on top of a car. Like, I don't think it gets any more nonchalant than that.” 

Painting side-by-side with original portrait

McElrath recreated that picture with friends and her car for more inspiration. She then painted the original image, with the front of the car replaced with hers and painted the background as a blueprint, signifying how black students in the seventies have shaped the lives of current students. 

Re-creation of Tolliver photo, modern day

“Photos are little time capsules that can hold so much emotion and power. For people who were present at the time a photo was taken, they can relive those times and reminisce, and for those who were born after the photo was taken, they can get an idea as to what the past was like,” said Mitcham. “Regardless of which one you fall under, you take away a glimpse of the thoughts and feelings of those within the photos. And whether they be posed, candid, etc. I believe that photos capture part of the whole of the human experience.”

POSTED: Tuesday, February 13, 2024 03:11 PM
Updated: Friday, March 1, 2024 04:06 PM
Eve Krejci, '24