Looking for Mr. Gilbert: The Unlikely Life of the First African American Landscape Photographer

Looking for Mr. Gilbert: The Unlikely Life of the First African American Landscape Photographer

Language: English

Pages: 288


Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

Looking for Mr. Gilbert is an account of the quest to uncover the heretofore unknown life of Robert A. Gilbert, an African American serving man who worked for the ornithologist William Brewster. A man of many talents, Gilbert went on to become the first African American landscape photographer.

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Harvard botany staff began bringing home tropical fruits such as mangoes, white sapotes, agles, and canistels and other exotic fare as yet unknown in New England, or even North America. Each of these new ingredients represented a challenge to the resourceful Gilbert, who, using his own devices and recipes, managed to present savory new dishes. One of his lunches was even written up in Life magazine in the 1940s. Photographs show Barbour at table—a vast Roman emperor with full cheeks and a mass

Moves on. Two black girls approaching in puffy winter coats, scarves twisted around their necks. Tight jeans. One is laughing so hard she has doubled over and has to hold onto the arm of her friend. When they see me they straighten up and walk on by, glance back after they’ve passed. Another: A huge sheeting spray of slush hitting the window of my car as a delivery truck slashes by at what the police would term “a high rate of speed.” The path was concrete, cleared of snow, the house had a

escorting tanned women my own age along the promenades. It was, in contrast to Atget and Brassaï and company, a brightly keyed world, best documented by the hedonistic playboy photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue. Jill Brown had joined me by this time. “I think we should go south,” I said to her, rationalizing that Mr. Gilbert might have been there, following the musicians who, after the first jazzed-up frenzy of the early twenties, drifted down to play in the big civilized hotels. So we took the

(I didn’t know yet that he did not like jazz). I thought maybe Whitman might know of some older person in town who might have heard of a piano player named Gilbert who hung around the old store. While we were talking, I heard the lilt of an American southern accent speaking in fluent but ungrammatical French and noticed an older black man in a gray vest and a red beret. “Go ask him,” Whitman said. “That’s Billy Broadway. He claims to know every black in Paris. He’s a cornet player.” After the

Caroline’s fondness for this small, formal man, shook his hand warmly and claimed to understand that this must be a blow to him as well, and how much Caroline would have appreciated his attendance. But the conversation churned mainly among the white women, and the only other people he knew there were the two Swedish maids who had once worked for the Brewsters, and who wept quietly in the back of the church during the service. Gilbert lived in a past of his own invention by this time, based

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