Reflections In Black: A History
of Black Photographers 1840
to the Present
by Esther Iverem
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All at once, Reflections In Black by Deborah Willis (W.W.
Norton & Company, 348 pp.) is history, narrative, a personal and
public record, cultural anthropology and a family album. With nearly
600 photographs by African American men and women from 1840 to the
present, it is a sweeping documentation of a diverse people's collective
cultural vision and voice.
The photographers speak by choosing where they point their lens
and when they click the shutter. The subjects speak too. What Deborah
Willis has offered here, and in the companion traveling exhibit
of the same name, is a meditation on what it has meant for African
Americans to see themselves.
Chester Higgins (Born 1946) A young moslem woman in Brooklyn.
Courtesy of the photographer. All rights reserved.
When photography was in its infancy, most early black photographers
were business people. They were expanding portraiture to the masses
who could not afford to pay a painter. On the other side of the
lens, non-enslaved blacks chose to create their own images as dignified
and striving people. When they brought their hard-earned money to
a photographer, they wanted a marker of their survival and success.
There was family: upstanding men and women posing stiffly in cities
from Richmond, Virginia to Helena, Montana for pioneering artists
such as Augustus Washington or J.P Ball. There were pictures of
chubby-faced babies and wrinkled grandmothers. The subjects did
not intentionally make themselves into a study of slavery, race
or racism. If they became so, it happened as they focused on their
humanity. Their humanity is what they saw, despite popular and abundant
images that depicted sons and daughters of Africa as subhuman.
In the early part of the last century, leading to the Harlem Renaissance
and the era of the "New Negro," the family portrait expanded to
include images of leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington,
taken by the growing ranks of black photographers including the
prolific C.M. Battey and A.P. Bedou. There are the first crowd shots,
one with Washington grinning in that self-satisfied manner that
you've seen one hundred preachers grinwhen they know they
have the crowd in the palm of their hand.
Photographer Daniel Freeman (1868-after 1919?) Portrait of
Couple, ca. 1899. Courtesy of James K. Hill, Washington, D.C
Willis moves through this history with insightful essays beginning
the sections covering each era. Visually compelling photography
books like this one can struggle mightily against the text, drawing
us, instead, to just flip through the images. Though the temptation
to do so is strong here, Willis rewards readers with her diligent
research, the culmination of more than 25 years of work as a curator
and author. Her text adds insight to the photographs and is strongest
in the early sections devoted to the fascinating history of early
photographers. Much of the later text, though informative, reads
less like a narrative and more like a laundry list of biographies.
As blacks began to work as photojournalists for black publications
in the 1930's, the family portrait expanded to include more social
and political events, as well as social conditions. The African
American Gothic became Gordon Parks' photo series of an impoverished
Washington, D.C cleaning woman. The Washington, D.C.-based Schurlock
Studios snaps Marion Anderson in her historic moment on the steps
of the Lincoln Memorial or Dr. Charles Drew with students at Howard
University. Charles Stewart's portraits of Eric Dolphy and John
and Alice Coltrane are as contemplative and lyrical as the musicians'
Photographer James Presley (Ball & Son) (1825-1905). Portrait
of an unidentified man superimposed on a seashell. circa 1890's.
Montana Historical Society, Helena
This documentation of the larger social stage increased during
the turbulent civil rights and black power movements of the 1950's
through the 1970's. Included here is Robert L. Haggins' haunting
photograph of Malcolm X outside a Harlem housing project, standing
with two young ministers, including Loius Farrakhan. Thankfully,
Moneta J. Sleet's famous portrait of Coretta Scott King at her husband's
funeral is a part of this collection. Unlike almost all of Sleet's
work held by Johnson Publishing (publishers of Ebony and Jet), which
tragically will not grant permission for use of his work, this portrait
is available because it was sold to the Associated Press.
Since that era, as more universities have offered degrees in photography,
and increased opportunities have opened up for African Americans
in diverse fields, there have been more blacks producing photography
as fine art. There has also been an explosion in the number of young
photojournalists, who are not well-represented in the final and
largest section of the book. This section includes fine artists
who experiment with combining photo images with other media, such
as paint and found objects like chair seats and leaves. They produce
photographs of their shadows and nude bodies, and scrawl lettering
across the finished surfaces.
Artists like Carrie Mae Weems and Renee Cox use images to make
statements that are both highly personal and relevant to the larger
community. In her series, "Not Manet's Type," Weems comments on
how black women's bodies are seen and not seen.
These artists allow the history of black photography to come full
circle, as they use a wide range of tools, techniques and voices
to create and see their own reflection.
-- June 29, 2001
2001-05 Seeing Black, Inc. All Rights Reserved.