Guide to the Max Belcher photographs, 1969-1998

Collection Overview

The photographs and printed materials in this collection date from 1969 to 1998, and document the work of Max Belcher, American-born photographer. The collection is organized into two series: Printed Materials and Photography. The Printed Materials Series consists of publicity, exhibit literature, and other materials related to Belcher's work as a photographer. The much larger Photography Series includes 1,027 contact sheets (860 black-and-white, 167 color), 381 photographs (239 black-and-white, 142 color), and five color fine prints spanning nearly three decades of Belcher's professional work as a photographer. This series is divided into eleven project-based subseries, which have been arranged chronologically by the start date of each project. Within each subseries, contact sheets precede photographs,and black-and-white work precedes color. Individual items in the photography series bear specific technical and identifying information, usually marked by Belcher on the backs of contact sheets and photographs. Acquired as part of the Archive of Documentary Arts.

More Biographical / Historical Info

Collection Details

Collection Number
Max Belcher photographs
Belcher, Max
10 Linear Feet, 48 boxes, 1425 Items
David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Using These Materials

A majority of collections are stored off site and must be requested at least 2 full business days in advance for retrieval. Contact Rubenstein Library staff before visiting. Read More »

warning Access to the Collection

Researchers must register and agree to copyright and privacy laws before using this collection.

All materials in the collection are available for study and research in the Library, except those specifically designated as access-restricted. At present, the only access-restricted materials are the five exhibition quality, fine prints from the project American People: Portraits of the Philadelphia Community in the Dominican Republic. Patrons may view these images rendered as exhibition images. If, upon viewing these exhibition images, a patron identifies a specific need to view the corresponding fine prints (e.g., for consideration for an exhibition), Library staff can permit the patron to view the fine prints.

All or portions of this collection may be housed off-site in Duke University's Library Service Center. The library may require up to 48 hours to retrieve these materials for research use.

warning Use & Permissions

The copyright interests in this collection have not been transferred to Duke University. For more information, consult the copyright section of the Regulations and Procedures of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

All items in the collection are open to researchers except five exhibition-quality prints from the project American People: Portraits from the Philadelphia Community in the Dominican Republic. Photocopies of each of these prints have been placed with the color photographs in the subseries for study by Library patrons.

Publishing requests should be directed to Mr. Belcher, who retains the copyright on all materials in this collection. Stipulations regarding the exhibition and reproduction of materials in the photography series vary according to the type of image in question, and are summarized below. The designation of specific images as professional, exhibition, study, reading-room-only or undesignated images may be determined by consulting Mr. Belcher's notes on individual photographs and contact sheets.

Professional and Exhibition Images

Exhibition: Request permission from Mr. Belcher.

Reproduction: The Library may make viewing copies, photocopies or slides for the purposes of research, teaching, private study or scholarly illustration.

Study Images

Exhibition: May be used in exhibitions only within the Library itself, and only when appropriate language is used to describe the place of these study images within Mr. Belcher'soeuvre.

Reproduction: The Library may make viewing copies, photocopies or slides for the purposes of research, teaching, private study or scholarly illustration.

Reading-Room-Only and Undesignated Images

Exhibition: These images may not be exhibited within or beyond the Library at any time whatsoever.

Reproduction: Pen and ink renditions of images so marked are the only allowable form of reproduction. Reading-room-only and undesignated images may not be reproduced in any photographic, electronic or digital form, or by other means for any purpose whatsoever.

Contact Sheets

Specific images on contact sheets have been identified as professional, study, or reading-room-only images, or remain undesignated. Stipulations on exhibition and reproduction of individual contact sheet images are dependent on the specific designation of the images in question.

Exhibition-Quality, Fine Prints

Exhibition: These prints may be displayed within or beyond the Library, at the Library's discretion.

Reproduction: Selected fine prints in this collection are restricted from general research use and thus are not to be reproduced. However, these images are duplicated in the collection as exhibition images, which may be reproduced according to the stipulations above. Requests for fine prints not in the Library's possession for use in exhibition, as well as requests for reproductions of fine prints for publication, should be directed to Mr. Belcher.

More copyright and citation information

How to Cite

[Identification of item], Max Belcher photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Contents of the Collection

1. Printed Materials, 1994-1998

6 items

Series includes Belcher's curriculum vitae, a summary of his "American People" project in the Dominican Republic, an exhibition brochure and three news articles related to his photography. Additional exhibit literature catalogued separately in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library includes A Land and Life Remembered: Americo-Liberian Folk Architecture, House and Home: Spirits of the South, and Claiming Place: Biracial American People.

Printed materials
Box 1

2. Photographs, 1969-1996 and undated

1413 items

The photography in this collection represents Belcher's work from his first forays into photography in New York City between 1969 and 1971, up to his most recent projects in Vietnam, the Dominican Republic and the United States. This series is organized by project subseries, which are arranged chronologically by the beginning date of each project. Within each subseries, black-and-white work precedes color work, and contact sheets precede photographs. Subseries descriptions describing collection holdings for each project follow the restrictions note below. For information about specific contact sheets and photographs, researchers are advised to consult Belcher's own notes on his work, usually found on the back of individual contact sheets or photographs.

In and Around New York City, 1969-1971

104 items

This subseries includes 104 contact sheets (97 black-and-white, 7 color) from Belcher's photographic work in New York City streets and neighborhoods. Many shots are from Belcher's days as a student at the New School for Social Research and as a production assistant at NBC News in New York. Images include portraits, landscapes, still lifes, cityscapes, and architecture; there are a variety of experimental images as well.

Black-and-white contact sheets
Box 2
Black-and-white contact sheets
Box 3
Color contact sheets
Box 4

Liberia, 1971-1973, 1977-1978, 1982-1983 (331 items)

This body of work explores the relationships between migration, identity and history in the American Liberian experience. Belcher's interest in this topic derived from his upbringing as a Philadelphia-born American who was raised in Liberia for ten years beginning in 1954. The subseries includes 210 black-and-white contact sheets, 89 black-and-white photographs, 22 color contact sheets and 10 color photographs. The earliest work, completed between 1971 and 1973, represents some of Belcher's first professional work as a photographer. There is also additional fieldwork done in the years 1977-1978 and 1982-1983, featuring American Liberian architecture and portraiture of indigenous Liberians and American Liberians. The exhibit catalog, A Land and Life Remembered: Americo-Liberian Folk Architecture, available in the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, provides more information about these projects.

Belcher's subsequent work on Southern architecture (located in a separate subseries) took him back to the origins of Liberian architecture in the vernacular architecture of the American South. These examples of cultural memory and historical continuity are discussed in both A Land and Life Remembered and House and Home: Spirits of the South, also held by the Rubenstein Library. Belcher returned to the themes of migration, identity and history in his later work in Samaná, Dominican Republic (also located in a separate subseries).

Black-and-white contact sheets
Box 5
Black-and-white contact sheets
Box 6
Black-and-white contact sheets
Box 7
Black-and-white contact sheets
Box 8
Black-and-white contact sheets
Box 9
Black-and-white photographs
Box 10
Black-and-white photographs
Box 11
Black-and-white photographs
Box 12
Color contact sheets
Box 13
Color photograph
Box 14

Other Photographic Work, 1973, 1975-1982, 1984-1985, 1988 and undated,

186 items

The 165 contact sheets and 21 photographs in this subseries, all in black-and-white, include experimental shots documenting Belcher's early and continuing work with various grades and makes of film, paper and photographic equipment. The images document a range of Belcher's photographic improvisations and studies, as well as attempts at capturing various textures, scapes, and light; and at composing with different angles and in varied photographic settings. Thus, the subseries documents the development of Belcher's photographic signature and style. The images include portraiture, architecture, landscapes and cityscapes, and were shot in Massachusetts, Florida, and Michigan.

Box 15
Black-and-white contact sheets
Box 15
Black-and-white contact sheets
Box 16
Black-and-white photographs
Box 17

Massachusetts: Work in Schools, 1979-1986

196 items

The materials in this subseries include extensive portraiture work completed during three public schools residencies in the environs of Boston, Massachusetts. There are three subgroups, each based on the school or project where the residency took place: Washington Community School (1979-1981), Somerville Media Action Project (1984), and Jamaica Plain (1984-1986).

Washington Community School

The Massachusetts Council on the Arts sponsored Belcher's work as artist-in-residence from 1979-1981 at the Washington Community School in Lynn. The images taken by Belcher primarily consist of portraits of elementary- and upper-school students, with a handful of shots of architecture, landscapes and other subject matter. The subseries includes 80 black-and-white contact sheets, nine black-and-white photographs and one color contact sheet.

Black-and-white contact sheets
Box 18
Black-and-white contact sheets and photographs
Box 19
Color contact sheets
Box 20
Somerville Media Action Project (SMAP), 1984

In 1984, Belcher received support for his work on the Somerville Media Action Project (SMAP), in Somerville, Massachusetts, through a one-month artist-in-residence program sponsored by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. These selections from his SMAP work feature portraits of local teenagers, as well as a variety of other city images. This subseries contains 18 contact sheets and 9 photographs, all in black-and-white.

Box 21
Black-and-white contact sheets
Box 21
Black-and-white contact sheets and photographs
Box 22
Jamaica Plain High School, 1984-1986

Sponsored by the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities and by the National Endowment for the Arts, Belcher was artist-in-residence from 1984-1986 at Jamaica Plain High School in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. The 73 black-and-white contact sheets, 12 black-and-white photographs, and 3 color contact sheets consist overwhelmingly of portraits of teenagers, with a few contact sheets with images of buildings and landscapes.

Box 23
Black-and-white contact sheets and photographs
Box 23
Black-and-white contact sheets and photographs
Box 24
Color contact sheets
Box 25

Israel, 1983

98 items

Images in this body of work include street scenes, portraiture, architecture, and town and landscapes made during Belcher's 1983 study in Israeli cities and communities. It contains 86 contact sheets and 12 photographs, all in black-and-white.

Black-and-white contact sheets
Box 26
Black-and-white contact sheets
Box 27
Black-and-white contact sheets and photographs
Box 28
Black-and-white photographs
Box 29

Southern United States, 1985-1992 and undated

41 items

This study of culture and community in the Southern U.S. comprises street scenes, architecture, and landscapes shot in New Orleans, Luoisiana, West Palm Beach, Florida, and several locations in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. It includes 14 black-and-white contact sheets, 12 black-and-white photographs, eight color contact sheets, and seven color photographs.

Black-and-white contact sheets and photographs
Box 30
Black-and-white photographs
Box 31
Color contact sheets and photographs
Box 32

Southern Architecture, 1986-1987

89 items

The Southern architecture photographs in this body of work were made to complement Belcher's project on Americo-Liberian architecture. They include images of churches, grave markers, houses, plantations and other 19th and 20th century architecture. The shots were taken in Lowndes County, Georgia; Bourbon, Clark, Fayette, Logan and Woodford counties, Kentucky; Alamance, Bertie, Chowan, Gates, Northampton, and Perquimans Counties, N.C.; Williamsburg and York Counties, S.C.; and Isle of Wight and Southampton Counties, Virginia. Photographic materials consist of 29 black-and-white contact sheets, 59 black-and-white photographs, and one color print.

The Rubenstein Library also holds a copy of the exhibit catalogs, House and Home: Spirits of the South and A Land and Life Remembered, which feature work from this project.

Black-and-white contact sheets
Box 33
Black-and-white and color photographs
Box 34

Canada, 1990

32 items

These images of vernacular architecture in New Brunswick and Quebec, Canada were taken during two trips in June and August 1990, supported by a Summer Research Grant from the Kenan Charitable Trust at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, where Belcher taught. Materials consist of seven black-and-white contact sheets, one black-and-white photograph, 18 color contact sheets, and six color photographs.

Black-and-white contact sheets and photographs
Box 35
Color contact sheets and photographs
Box 36

American People: Portraits from the Philadelphia Community in the Dominican Republic, 1991-1992, 1995-1996, and undated

254 items

Returning to the major themes of Belcher's earlier work in Liberia , this work explores the relationships between migration, identity and history by documenting African American emigration to and life in Samaná, Dominican Republic. Specifically, the photographs portray the descendants of U.S. slave- and free-born blacks who emigrated from Philadelphia to Samaná in 1824 and 1825 as part of a migration organized by the Haitian Emigration Society. For a fuller description of this project, see Belcher's one-page description of his work in Samaná, included in the printed materials series. The subseries includes 51 black-and-white contact sheets, 4 black-and-white photographs, 96 color contact sheets, 98 color photographs, and 5 exhibition-quality, fine color prints.

Conditions Governing Access note

This subseries contains five exhibition-quality, fine prints that are restricted to general access. Photocopies of each of these prints have been placed with the color photographs in the subseries. Please consult with a Research Services staff if access to the fine prints is needed (e.g. for exhibition purposes).

Black-and-white contact sheets
Box 37
Black-and-white photographs
Box 38
Color contact sheets
Box 39
Color contact sheets
Box 40
Color photographs
Box 41
Color photographs
Box 42
Exhibition-quality color prints

RESTRICTED: Photocopies of these prints are located at the beginning of Box 41 for viewing by researchers.

Box 43

Vietnam, 1994

41 items

This group of images derives from Max Belcher's field work in Vietnam during January, 1994. The 30 contact sheets and 11 photographs, all black-and-white, include architecture and portraits, primarily of female veterans of the Northern Vietnamese Army who served during the period of conflict with France and the United States.

Black-and-white contact sheets and photographs
Box 44
Black-and-white photographs
Box 45

Claiming Place: Biracial American Portraits, 1994-1995 and undated

32 items

The photographs in this subseries explore biracial and multiracial identity among young American adults born in the 1960s. This work was exhibited as part of a larger project on racial identity undertaken in conjunction with social anthropologist Marion Kilson and professor of art Theresa Monaco, and supported by grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Learning Society Inc., Salem State College and Emmanuel College. The subseries includes 12 contact sheets and 20 photographs, all color. For more on this project, researchers are encouraged to consult the exhibit brochure, Claiming Place: Biracial American People, available in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Color contact sheets
Box 46
Color photographs
Box 47

3. Accession (2008-0304), 1975-1978

1 box

The addition (2008-0304) includes six matted prints that appear to be from Belcher's Americo-Liberian series, taken in the mid-1970s.

Black-and-white photographs
(6 items)
Box 48

Historical Note

Max Belcher was born in Philadelphia in 1944 to an African American father from North Carolina and a Jewish American mother of Polish/Lithuanian descent, born in rural Pennsylvania. In 1952 his father went to the Gold Coast at the invitation of the couple's wartime friend, Kwame Nkrumah, for what was meant to be an eight-week business trip. His father was to remain in Africa for the next four decades. By 1954, Belcher, Sr. had established himself in neighboring Liberia and had become a naturalized Liberian citizen; Max and his mother and sister then joined him.

At sixteen, Max Belcher began working in broadcasting as a staff announcer for the Liberian Broadcasting Corporation. By the time he left to go to school in the U.S. in 1964, his lived experience in Liberia, French Guinea and Sierra Leone, combined with his growing appreciation of the capacity of radio, television and film to inform and influence, made him aware of the need for the material and techniques required to disseminate practical information in a developing country, particularly on matters of public health, agricultural practice, child rearing, and road safety.

Belcher's plans were quickly thwarted by the escalation of the Vietnam War. Feeling that the draft was inevitable, Belcher enlisted in the U.S. Marines, serving as a radio and television broadcaster in the U.S. and at Armed Forces Radio and Television Service on Okinawa; and as a Marine Corps Combat Correspondent in Vietnam. After his tour of duty he settled in New York City, where he took a full-time job as a production assistant at NBC News and enrolled in college. He began his studies at Columbia University in 1968 but quickly transferred to the New School for Social Research, where a filmmaking instructor encouraged him to grow accustomed to seeing the world through the lens of a still camera. That training, initially intended to develop his skills as a filmmaker, introduced Belcher to the expressive potential of photography.

Continuing his liberal arts studies at the New School, he also enrolled in a photography class at the School of Visual Arts. At the same time he began shooting experimental photographs in and around New York City, often choosing friends, landscapes and local architecture as his subjects. Finishing his studies in 1970, he returned to Liberia in 1971, embarking on what would become his first major project as a professional photographer.

Since that time, Belcher's photographic interests in portraiture and vernacular architecture have developed in conjunction with the thematic exploration of racial identity, emigration and history that run through his work in Africa, Asia, North America, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. He has had numerous one-man shows in the eastern United States and has contributed to group exhibits group exhibits across the U.S. and in Canada, Italy, Chile, Vietnam, and Soviet Armenia. Belcher's photography is held both by private collectors and in the permanent collections of galleries and museums in the United States, Canada, and Vietnam. He has received major support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Fulbright Scholars Program, the LEF Foundation, Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Kenan Charitable Trust, and programs of the National Endowment for the Arts. His publications include House and Home: Spirits of the South (1994), and A Land and Life Remembered: Americo-Liberian Folk Architecture (1988), both held by the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. He has also taught black-and-white photography to beginning, intermediate and advanced students in Massachusetts, and has lectured on his work. He currently resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his wife.

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The David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library received the Max Belcher Photographs as a purchase in 1995, 1997, and 2008. While the collection is owned by the Library, Max Belcher retains the copyright to his work.

Processing Information

Processed by Lisa Gayle Hazirjian with Alexander X. Byrd, Karen Jefferson, and Diane Sutton

Completed August 30, 1998

Encoded by Don Sechler

Updated by Meghan Lyon, January 2009

Encoding and description updated by Paula Jeannet, March 2014