Reflections in Black: Celebrating African Americans in Photography

Augustus Washington (1820–1875)
Unidentified woman, probably a member of the Urias McGill family, daguerreotype, sixth plate, 1855, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LZ-USZC4-3937.

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Twelve years ago, Reflections in Black became the largest exhibition ever conceived to explore the breadth and history of work by black photographers.

It is unlikely that many people would be familiar with the name Jules Lion. A free man of color, Lion established the first daguerrean studio in New Orleans and, in doing so, became somewhat of a local celebrity. Alone, his accomplishments might have been of little interest. But the fact that he did this in the early spring of 1840, soon after the announcement of the daguerreotype process, is worthy of special attention. Moreover, there is evidence that Lion may have immigrated from France with knowledge of the process. For historian Deborah Willis, Lion’s achievements mark not only the beginning of photography in the U.S., but the pioneering involvement of blacks in the medium. As a result, Lion is included in the landmark exhibition,Reflections in Black: Smithsonian African American Photography.The exhibition, the largest ever conceived to explore the breadth and history of black photography in the U.S., features more than 300 vintage, modern, and contemporary images by photographers of African descent, and was curated by Willis, formerly of the Smithsonian Institution Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, and currently Professor of Photography and Imaging at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. A recent MacArthur Fellow and photographer, she is also the author of the exhibition companion book, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present.

The groundbreaking survey, which has traveled throughout the U.S. since 2000, was on display at three Northern California museums: the African American Museum and Library at Oakland, the Oakland Museum of California, and the Mills College Art Museum. This unique collaboration afforded the only complete viewing of the exhibition in the West. The First 100 Years: 1842 – 1942, the exhibition’s first thematic section, chronicles the early development of African American photography. The second section, Art and Activism,focuses on the role of social meaning and commentary in photography, mirroring the rise of the civil rights movement. A History Deconstructed, the final section, explores the black photographers’ response to our society’s established definitions of race, class, and gender.

Throughout the exhibition, Willis eloquently presents a simple premise: that black photographers have played a significant role in influencing and defining black self-identity while, at the same time, playing an essential part in the history of the medium. Adopting the power of the new technology, blacks immediately began to use photography to counter negative images prevalent in the U.S., as well as to create a more affirming representation.

P. (Prentice) H. Polk (1898–1984)
Mildred Hanson Baker, gelatin silver print, ca. 1937–1938, Paul R. Jones Collection, Atlanta, Georgia.

This fact is no better evidenced than in The First 100 Years. The section highlights the work of Lion; Augustus Washington, a Connecticut daguerrean whose anti-slavery views were often reflected in his work; J.P. (James Presley) Ball, a photographer, abolitionist, and businessman who opened Ball’s Great Daguerrean Gallery of the West in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1847, and whose career spanned almost 50 years; C.M. (Cornelius Marion) Battey, known for his portraits of black intellectuals and leaders, and head of the Photography Division at the Tuskegee Institute; and James VanDerZee, one of the most widely recognized black photographers of the period, who was best known for his pictures of the Harlem Renaissance.

Also featured, among others, is work by A. (Arthur) P. Bedou, whose 1910 photograph of a crowd assembled for a speech by Booker T. Washington includes another photographer at its center, perhaps signifying Bedou’s own role and place; images by Washington, D.C. photographer Addison Scurlock, Howard University’s official photographer; Gordon Parks’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) work from the 1940s, and an engaging selection of images by the Pittsburg photojournalist Charles “Teenie” Harris.

Employing dozens of images, Willis illustrates her thesis well. In the photograph Unidentified woman, probably a member of the Urias McGill family, a young woman is shown holding a daguerreotype case in lace-gloved hands. Photographed in Monrovia, Liberia by Augustus Washington in 1855, she is seen in the Victorian-era dress of the period with the very case that will later contain her image. The portrait, as Willis notes, was sent back to the United States, and “it lets her family know that she survived her trip to Africa, that she is living well, and that she thinking about them.”

But the photograph serves as more than just a portrait of a young woman. Willis adds that Washington, whose clientele also included whites, depicted blacks in a way that was not usually seen by the general public. Typically, blacks during the period were portrayed negatively, whereas Washington’s black subjects “tell the story of their class,” through the style of their dress and other subtle signifierssuch as the daguerreotype case.

It may be difficult for contemporary viewers to fully appreciate the significance to blacks of seeing an African American outside the distorted images common at the turn of the century. And to some, P.H. Polk’s photograph, The Boss, might fit such a stereotypic picture, in this case of the Southern mammy. But only without the knowledge that the subject had chosen, according to Polk:

To be portrayed in her own matter-of-factness: confident, hard working, adventuresome, assertive and stern. The pose, at an angle, and her expression, authoritative and firm, are not the result of my usual tactics to encourage a response. She wears her own clothes. She is not cloaked in victimization. She is not pitiful; therefore, she is not portrayed in pitiful surroundings. She is not helpless, and she is not cute. Instead she projects notions of independence, and is powerful in appearance, and is, by title, the boss.

Willis contends that “black photographers were especially sensitive to negative depictions of blacks, and most of their clients wanted to celebrate their achievements and establish a counterimage that conveyed a sense of self and self-worth.” Through their work, black photographers endeavored to redefine the image of the African American from a caricature of the subhuman and the uncivilized to a true likeness of the graceful and the accomplished, an ideal well-illustrated in photographs such as VanDerZee’s Couple in Raccoon Coats, Richard Samuel Roberts’ Alonzo P. Hardy, and in P.H. Polk’sMildred Hanson Baker.

The start of the new century had witnessed the beginning of the Great Migration, the 20-year migration of more than one million Southern blacks into the industrialized cities of the North, the birth of the Harlem Renaissance, and the cultural and social transformation of blacks into, as philosopher Alain Locke defined it, the “New Negro”. Locke believed that blacks were largely disenfranchised from the mainstream white society and could gain acceptance and cultural freedom through art.

A half-century later, however, little if any economic, political, or social progress had been realized by the majority of blacks living in America. One of the largest race riots in U.S. history occurred in Detroit in 1943, the Klu Klux Klan was being reorganized, and lynching, though declining in numbers since the mid-1940s, was still commonplace in the South.

By the 1950s, black photographers had begun to move away from the romanticism that had characterized much of their work in the first century of the medium. Expanding beyond the documentary work of the FSA, black photographers began to focus on the issues paramount within their own communities—racial discrimination, economic disparity, and civil rights. At the same time, after years of being represented by white photographers with varying degrees of insight and exploitation, black photographers were striving to take ownership of the images many of them believed only they were capable of creating.

P. (Prentice) H. Polk (1898–1984)
Old Character Series: The Boss, gelatin silver develop-out print, 1932. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1981.62.2.In Art & Activism, the second thematic section of the exhibition, Willis focuses on the new consciousness emerging in the 1950s, showing work of such photographers as Ernest Withers, whose photograph of a group of hundreds of striking sanitation workers holding signs reading “I Am A Man” serves as one of the section’s most powerful images. Also included are images such as Robert L. Haggins’s photograph of a proud, smiling Malcolm X and a youthful Muhammad Ali, taken shortly after the boxer had won his first championship fight, and Jonathan Eubank’s iconic 1969 image of a Black Panther party member carrying a “Free Huey” flag. Also on view is Moneta J. Sleet Jr.’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a veiled Coretta Scott King embracing her daughter, Bernice, at the funeral of her husband, the slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.Some may argue that a white photographer might have captured these same images, but few represented blacks as multifaceted individuals in their photography. For example, a second Haggins photograph of Malcolm X—a photograph simply of a father with his arms around his two daughters—stands in sharp contrast to the images of a fiery, radical Nation of Islam leader many Americans were accustomed to seeing. Would a white photographer have chosen to capture the leader in such a tender, familial setting?An exhibition of this scope should engender considerable discussion, as it has, particularly with respect to the pivotal role black photographers have played throughout the history of the medium. YetReflections in Black raises two additional, equally important issues: first, why have the majority of black photographers not been included in the general discourse on photography and, secondly, is there a unique aesthetic in photography that can labeled be “black”?

Of the two, perhaps, it is easiest to discuss the first. Despite the well-known work of photographers such as James VanDerZee, Gordon Parks, and Roy DeCarava, none of the five editions of Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography: from 1839 to the Present Day, the last which was published in 1982, makes mention of a single black photographer.

Robert L. Haggins (b. 1922)
Malcolm X with Muhammad Ali, gelatin silver print, 1964, courtesy of the photographer, Bronx, New York.Prior to the publication of Newhall’s third edition in 1964, DeCarava had been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, had published work to critical acclaim in The Sweet Flypaper of Life, and had been included in Edward Steichen’s 1955 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, The Family of Man. While long considered to be the standard reference on photography, how could Newhall’s authoritative book not include DeCarava who Steichen, in 1963, called “one of the 10 best living photographers in the world”? The reason for the exclusion may, unfortunately, be a painfully simple one. As the photographer and writer James Alinder observed in his introduction to Roy DeCarava: Photographs:Racial segregation has permeated our culture; thus it is no surprise that the photographic segments of the art establishment have been controlled by white males. Even though artists, and the art administrators who deal them, tend to be liberal, they have not erased racial barriers. The same has been true of photographic historians, not to mention publishers. What is too often missing from our photography world is decision making that is sensitized to other value systems, that recognize other visual priorities as legitimate, that allows the artists themselves to state what is important and then actually to listen to that voice.

Shawn W. Walker (b. 1940)
Who knows?, gelatin silver print, 1991, courtesy of the photographer, New York, New York.

Even today, the issue of whether one can define an artistic aesthetic based on cultural identity remains hotly contested. Because American sub-cultures have increasingly become indistinguishable from the [white] mainstream, one could argue that there should be little difference in the aesthetics, or visual priorities, of a black, Hispanic, or white photographer. This line of reasoning almost certainly implies some degree of homogeneity in the U.S., and assumes that the work of most American photographers would reflect this common viewpoint.

Author and critic Max Kozloff posits an alternate view to homogeneity, albeit in a different slightly context, in his controversial essay, “Jewish Sensibility and the Photography of New York”. Kozloff argues that Jewish photographers “behave differently because of their lovers-quarrel with assimilation–not a social assimilation, but a cultural one.” And it is this sense of marginalization, this feeling of being the outsider, he contends, that sets the work of Jews apart. Presaging a similar sentiment some 20 years earlier, Roy DeCarava said: “Art is expressed through individuality, [and] our individuality is shaped by our society. If our society shapes us into black people and white people, then there is going to be a black sensibility and a white sensibility, black photography and white photography. It’s not in the genes, it’s in the culture.”

There is an undeniably shared sensibility evident in A History Deconstructed, the culminating section of Reflections in Black; an awareness and sensitivity defined by a pursuit of artistic meaning, self-representation, and a desire to control one’s own image. With the exception of photographers such as Roy DeCarava, few black photographers before this era made images that were intentionally meant to be artistic.

In the last 30 years, however, black photographers have had opportunities to study photography as art, learning to push the photograph beyond the purely visual. The role of the photographer, then, shifts from documentarian to social commentator: questioning, challenging, and deconstructing the photographic image.

Artists such as Pat Ward Williams, Albert Chong, and Lorna Simpson (the first black woman to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art) juxtapose photography and written text to produce conceptual work. In Delia, Williams uses the narrative to investigate the notion of racial identity in her 1994 mixed media piece about a light-skinned black woman often mistaken for white. And in Chong’s 1994Trespass, the artist superimposes the image of a wall with that of a nude black woman, the word “trespass” falling across her chest.

In Carla Williams’ 1991 self-portrait, A Virtuous Negro’s Head from theHow to Read Character series, she confronts the past use of photography to support the alleged inferiority of blacks to whites. In her larger-than-life image, Williams dialogues with the pseudoscience of phrenology (the belief that the shape and contours of the human skull could be used to determine a person’s character and mental capacity) and a part of racist history.

At the same time, many of the selections in A History Deconstructedare intimate and often autobiographical. In his photograph, Who knows?, New York photographer Shawn W. Walker uses self-portraiture, shadows, and reflections to express the social and cultural ambiguity underlying the experience of the black male in America. An original member of the Kamoinge Workshop, a forum for black photographers founded in the 1960s, Walker considers himself to be a modernist and a surrealist “working within the political, the spiritual, and the aesthetic.”

The work of Oakland-based photographer Chris Johnson, Untitled Triptych, recounts a “painful and transformative” childhood experience of abuse by superimposing his image with letters from his mother—correspondence in which he learned that his grandmother had abused her in a similar fashion. And in the 1995 digital montageUntitled from the series, Soul Searching, Stephen Marc combines his own body of photographic work, images and events from his family, and the larger experience of black culture and history to create a complex narrative that is, at once, both personal and universal.

Chris Johnson (b. 1948)
Detail (third panel) of Untitled triptych, gelatin silver print with text, 1991, courtesy of the photographer, Oakland, California.

Reflections in Black is not a comprehensive survey of the history of black photographers. Willis acknowledges that there are some omissions, most notably, a number of early women photographers. (Fortunately, many of these were profiled in Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe’s excellent work, Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers, published in 1993.) But the exhibition does succeed in underscoring the central role of the black photographer in the history of the medium and in defining the self-image of generations of Americans. Black photographers celebrated the lives of African Americans through their work—recording the significant and the mundane—infusing them with a sense of pride, a sense of self, and a sense of legitimacy. At the same time, it serves as a reminder to the casual viewer, the critic, and the historian that there is more than a single photographic aesthetic that demands critical recognition and attention.

A longer version of this text was originally published in the December 2003 issue of Black & White magazine, number 28.

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