A True Likeness
A True Likeness tells the story of Richard Samuel Roberts, a little-known African-American photographer from South Carolina whose posthumous discovery transcended stereotypes and brought to light a significant legacy. Heralded as one of the south’s most accomplished photographers of the 1920's and 1930's, Roberts was a self-taught artist who was determined to become a master portrait maker, with every image a true likeness of the subject. But for more than 40 years after his death his work remained lost to all but his family and friends.
Richard Samuel Roberts and his wife moved to Columbia, South Carolina in 1920. He worked as a post office custodian and rented a studio on Washington Street in 1922. For 14 years, he captured thousands of images, documenting the segregated black district of Columbia as well as nearby towns.
Roberts’ tiny studio with poor natural light forced him to improvise in his use of equipment and background, but he prided himself on the quality of his work. "No other gift causes so much real and lasting joy as the gift of your photograph," he wrote in a leaflet publicizing his activities in the 1920's. To have "a true likeness" of oneself was a necessity of life. After his death in 1936, Roberts’ children stored his negatives in a cool, dry space beneath the family home in the Arsenal Hill section of Columbia, and there the plates stayed, unseen, for nearly half a century.
The work was “discovered” in 1977 when researchers Dr. Tom Johnson and Dr. Phillip Dunn, from the University of South Carolina's Caroliniana Library, contacted Roberts’ children. They were presented with more than 3,000 negatives. The researchers were astounded by the clarity of the plates and their meticulous but natural composition. The dignity of the subjects, they said, was “readily apparent." Johnson, with the invaluable cooperation of the Roberts family and a field archival team at the Caroliniana, interviewed numerous people throughout the Columbia area to identify the people in the portraits. Dr. Dunn began an arduous two and a half year task of cleaning and restoring the plates. The culmination of their work was a display of Roberts' photographs at the Columbia Museum in 1986 as part of the city's bicentennial celebrations.
Much of Roberts’ work has been collected and published in a book, “A True Likeness--The Black South of Richard Samuel Roberts: 1920-1936.” His pictures have been called “the most realistic collective images of South Carolina's African-American life in the 1920's and 1930's, especially the rise of the economically secure middle class.” This astounding visual record forms the basis for a documentary that is as timeless as the subject itself. Roberts’ images and the stories behind each picture project immediacy as history fades. The program interweaves the photographs with archival footage and interviews of Johnson, Dunn, Roberts’ descendants and the subjects of his portraits, set against a backdrop of period music to tell the story of an artist and the community whose history he recorded.