Celebrating Black Photographers Past and PresentFebruary 26th, 2021
Photography captures life, family and history. It is art, journalism, and culture. The images tell a visual story of the inflection points in history that are joyous or painful. They helped the world see Dr. King peacefully marching on the bridge in Selma, and the horror exposed when white police turned dogs, fire hoses, and batons on them.
A photographer’s images can be more familiar to us than their face or name. Black photographers also faced being unseen in a racist culture where editors, art museum curators and others were predominantly white. There is a great HBO documentary called Black Art: In the Absence of Light that is a great look into the historic and current struggles.
While I am trying to acknowledge the history, this article is intended as a celebration. A list of photographers who have influenced and inspired. Unfortunately, a list by nature will not include the thousands of influential Black photographers in history. As a white gay guy from Bakersfield, I would say there was zero education on Black artists growing up. What little I know was picked up from a life that sought out art in classes, trips to the museums, friends and community. A historian might have a different list. Let this be the first of many conversations and celebrations of the voices that lift up and help each other learn.
Where to begin? How about with a man famous for his images of the Harlem Renaissance…
James Van Der Zee (1886 – 1983)
While his work spans decades, critics and historians focus on celebrating his work from 1916 through 1945. He opened his studio in 1916 in Harlem. During World War I, the studio had a lot of success and his work became popular with the growing middle class. The community hired him to capture their weddings, events, funerals and social life.
Known for his formal poses and highly polished work, Zee’s studio was a who’s who of the famous and important, including political leader Marcus Garvey, author and poet Countee Cullen, dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and sports legend Joe Lewis.
Images from Zee’s collection were included in the controversial Harlem On My Mind, an exhibition at the New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969. Ironically, that was the year he retired as public interest in his style of portraiture had declined due to the wide availability of cheaper, easier to use cameras. A biography, Take a Picture of Me, James Van Der Zee! by Andrea J. Loney was published in 2017. You can also find books of his work on your favorite book site or library.
Don Hogan Charles (1938-2017)
Time and place align for photojournalist Don Hogan Charles. In 1964, he was the first African-American staff photographer hired by The New York Times, where he worked for four decades. His famous subjects include Coretta Scott King, John Lennon, and Muhammad Ali. His photo of Malcolm X holding an M1 carbine as he looks out the window protecting his family is a chilling reminder of the long-term violence towards the Black community that continues today and has driven the Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name movements.
Famous names are not required to have impact. In 1967, during the riots of 1967 in Newark, NJ, a young Black male walks towards Charles and has his hands up. He’s looking over his shoulder at the all white national guard behind him. Hogan’s image stands up over 50 years later, as an all too reminiscent reminder of the “hands up, don’t shoot” of our current generation.
The New York Times has a slide show of some of his work if you would like to see them. His work is also in MOMA and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.
Carrie Mae Weems
My first recollection of Carrie Mae Weems work was her Kitchen Table Series. I think a friend had the book and I just felt it was honest, daring me not to see what bravely shows and see all the things that make her who she is.
Her bio on her website says it best, “Considered one of the most influential contemporary American artists, Carrie Mae Weems has investigated family relationships, cultural identity, sexism, class, political systems, and the consequences of power.”
Although the Kitchen Table Series was my introduction, as I learned more I found she has brought forward a complex body of work using a variety of media including photography. As a viewer, I feel I have been asked/invited/challenged to participate. That could include your emotional participation, or having a shift in perspective. There is something asked of us when we view her work.
Find out more on her website.
In his video interview for his SFMOMA exhibit, An American Project, Dawoud Bey talks about attending the exhibit Harlem on My Mind that featured James Van Der Zee’s work, at 16 years of age. He had just received his first camera and his journey began. His first solo exhibition was in 1979.
An example of his powerful and beautiful work is, Birmingham Project, a series of diptychs. On one side, young people who were the ages of the children killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. On the other side, an adult who is the age those young children would be today. The intensity of their gaze and the juxtaposition speaks to the lost potential those young lives may have made to the community. The first time I saw them was in his book, Two American Projects, including images from the exhibit. The images caught my breath and brought on waves of feelings for each and every photo in the book.
That’s just one example. Find out more on his Instagram
Everyone remembers where they were when Beyoncé was on the cover of the September issue of American Vogue in 2018. It was seen around the world. Tyler Mitchell was the first Black photographer to have the distinction of shooting the cover of American Vogue.
At 23 years of age, Tyler Mitchell made history. The following year, a portrait from this series was acquired by The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery for its permanent collection.
During interviews at the time, Mitchell spoke about how the camera had been democratized for his generation. In his interview on NPR, he said, “…[T]he beautiful thing about now is that it’s no longer somebody who can afford the best camera, but it’s about what your eye says.”
On his website, he says he is “working across many genres to explore and document a new aesthetic of Blackness.” This is realized in his monograph from his first solo exhibit, I Can Make You Feel Good, can give you a look at his work in a broader context from his perspective.
Find out more on his website.
As I mentioned, the list can go on: LaToya Ruby Frazier, Texas Isaiah, Lorna Simpson, Michelle V. Agins, Gordon Parks, Florestine Perrault Collins, Golden, and more could be added to the list. The celebration will continue and learning is ongoing.
Photos are a reflection of the past asking us if to see our part in the bigger picture. I hope in the future we can look back and see a world that is more representative and that photos taken 50 years from now don’t look like a repeat of Newark street of 1967. Black lives matter.