Mangum appears regularly in his photographs, often filling the first or last place on a Penny negative, coyly posing with his hat over his face or gazing at himself in a mirror. The engagement of his sitters with the camera suggests he was a gregarious person who put people at ease and had a playful streak, such as posing a dog like a person in a succession of family portraits. Yet no matter who he was photographing, there is a self-possession and dignity in their portraits.
“The great variety of portraits that Mangum made show us a time and place that we think we are familiar with and have many assumptions about, ideas we carry with us about race, class, and family relationships, ideas based in fact but also, to a degree, in fiction,” Sartor stated. “In the multiple-image glass plate negatives that have survived, we see black people and white people, people of mixed race and people from a wide range of economic circumstances, all portrayed as distinct and complex individuals. We see African Americans — young, old, rich, and poor — who communicate strength, poise, and self-determination.”
Mangum died suddenly at the age of 44 during an influenza epidemic. Many of his portraits are as lively as if they were taken yesterday, with people caught in candid laughter or with freshly cut flowers pinned on their suits and dresses. Other faces are almost lost to the crackle of decay on the glass plate negatives. Together they are a compelling collective portrait of this region of the South at the beginning of the 20th century, taken by a person who gave all of his subjects a place to express themselves.
“These plates seem to embody the very texture of life, pointing directly to the ways in which experience is impacted by passing history,” Sartor said. “In the scratches, cracks, fingerprints, and delicate color shifts that surround and sometimes cover the sitters’ faces, we are looking at portraits of individuals through the unmistakable portal of time.”