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The mysterious images of Hugh Mangum

Mysterious portraits from a bygone era 02:29

DURHAM, North Carolina - They are the faces of a generation past slavery, anonymous portraits taken of Southerners at the dawn of a new century.

And for the last four years, New York researcher and photographer Sarah Stacke has been trying to bring their identities into focus.

"This image has remained one of my favorite," said Stacke. "She has a simple dress on, but she looks so real ... proud, and the way her shoulders are back, gaze off to the side. I would love to sit down and talk with her and learn about her life."

The pictures were taken by little known photographer, Hugh Mangum. He traveled across Virginia and North Carolina from 1890 to 1922. Rare for the time, Mangum photographed both blacks and whites, sometimes sitting them right after the next.

Only 680 of the original glass plate negatives remain, hundreds more lost to decay or never found.

To learn more about the portrait sitters, Stacke has had to learn more about Mangum. She even tracked down Mangum's granddaughter, Martha Sumler.

An untitled portrait by Hugh Mangum Hugh Mangum Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

"He went to art school," Sumler said.

Sumler shared some of his family pictures and handwritten letters.

"The letters are an insight into his personality," said Stacke. "I feel like it really gave me insight into his generous and kind spirit in and out of the studio."

Hugh Mangum Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

Mangum died of influenza at the age of 44 and left little record of his clients. Stacke believes someone knows who they are, so she has organized this recent exhibit in hopes a visitor might recognize a face. So far, she has had little success.

When asked why she has such an intensity to learn about these people, Stacke said:

"I think it would add so much more depth to the collection that is already rich. Knowing a person's name allows more of a connection, much more personal, and it builds a different kind of history, rather than symbolic. Knowing someone's name and calling them by their name, it's an honor.

An honor that, for now, remains a mystery frozen on glass.

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