In 1926, my grandfather was expelled in the eleventh grade in New York City for asking where African Americans were in the history books. He refused to accept what the teacher told him, that African Americans had done nothing to merit inclusion.
As dreams of previous generations erode, there is nothing more uplifting than the clear vision of a veteran free of bitterness. That’s why I love the work of Frank Stewart. His vigilant eye is trained on counternarrative realities that run deeper than race, gender, class, or even oppression itself.
For Hank Willis Thomas—conceptual photographer and multimedia artist—American commerce is a perpetual source of slogans and spectacles. In his series Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America, 1968-2008, Thomas excised the logos from post-civil-rights-era advertisements for products marketed to African Americans, unveiling an array of stereotypes.
On January 18, 1969, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened the exhibition Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968. Mired in controversy from the beginning of the curatorial process, it was organized by exhibition committee director Allon Schoener and consisted primarily of photographs arranged in thirteen galleries by decade and themes such as “1920-1929: An Urban Black Culture” and “1950-1959: Frustration and Ambivalence.”
A masterful orator and impassioned activist, the most photographed man in nineteenth-century America was also a theorist on the riveting new medium.
Henry Louis Gates
Since he was photographed more than any other American of his time, it shouldn’t surprise us that Frederick Douglass not only used photographic images of himself, like he used his oratory, in the battle to end slavery and to insure for the Negro full citizenship rights, but he also theorized about photography, about its nature and its uses.
A short-lived magazine was the essential venue for black photographers, paving the way for previously untold histories.
Despite the fact that photographs published in book form date back to William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1844 The Pencil of Nature, the first monograph by a black photographer and author, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, Roy DeCarava’s collaboration with writer Langston Hughes, wasn’t published until 1955.
Director Ava DuVernay is on a mission. With her films I Will Follow (2010), Middle of Nowhere (2012), and the critically acclaimed Selma (2014), about Martin Luther King, Jr., she has created cinematic worlds distinguished by deft character studies and nuanced subtexts.
Visionary director Haile Gerima emigrated from Ethiopia to the United States in the late 1960s. Exploring African and African American narratives, his works, sometimes born of dreams and visions, have inspired a new generation of filmmakers.
Dagmawi Woubshet: I think it’s a fair statement to say that one can think of Haile Gerima’s work as a meditation on love. I am reminded of James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time, who says that “love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”
How have photographs defined a transformative presidency?
“What really exercises my mind is not this hypothetical day on which some other Negro ‘first’ will become the first Negro President. What I am really curious about is just what kind of country he’ll be President of.” —James Baldwin, “Nationalism, Colonialism, and the United States: One Minute to Twelve,” 1961
Kitchens and streets. You could write a history of the twentieth century through that pairing. If the city street is a place of random encounter, of hustle and protest, the kitchen is a place of intimate habit, of sharing and aroma. Emotional distance is routine on the street, but excruciating in the kitchen.
Awol Erizku, born in Ethiopia, raised in the Bronx, and based in Los Angeles, effortlessly moves among photography, painting, sculpture, installation, and video. He also has a very active presence on social media, and with little notice one might catch an array of new images on Tumblr or a quick exhibition on Instagram.
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s drawings engage, destroy, highlight, and ultimately privilege a new grammar for blackness. Using black ballpoint, graphite, pastel, and charcoal, Odutola subordinates representation and fact telling to mark making and open-ended image construction.
Lorna Simpson resists what her viewers— all viewers—consider their authority: her work demands that we speculate, investigate. What Simpson withholds is certainty. The certainty of familiar visual tropes and textual sequences; the certainty imposed and incited by race, gender, and class histories.
A photograph by Annie Leibovitz gives us celebrity from both sides of the camera. The photographer is an icon; the sitters, internationally recognized as subjects of consequence. This selection of Leibovitz images groups women, all of them black women, who function here as Very Important People as well as icons of American beauty.
A candelabra, a beach scene, a beauty shop, a weathered façade, a classic female silhouette, a self-portrait. What do these images have in common? The historian and photographer Deborah Willis might tell you that they initiate a dialogue about beauty in its many forms.
In 1859, the black abolitionist paper Anglo-African Magazine published an essay titled “A Statistical View of the Colored Population.” It focused on the nearly four million slaves in the United States, more than in any other nation at the time.
Well before there was a Kehinde Wiley, there was Jamel Shabazz and his New York street portraiture of subjects framed by regalia of their own making. Black people dignified, noble, shoulders back but with a slight lean to the side. The top-hatted brother dressed in formal attire.
On Sunday, April 19, 2015, Freddie Gray, a twenty-five-year-old Baltimore man, died from injuries suffered during his arrest made seven days earlier by Baltimore police. The peaceful protests that followed Gray’s initial encounter with six officers quickly turned to violent confrontations following the news of his death that Sunday.
For over a decade, Leslie Hewitt has been riffing on photography’s "real” time, layering image and repeating form. Her practice, though rooted in photography, expands beyond any strict or bounded understanding of that medium to include sculpture, moving images, and site-specific installation.
From the beginning, Lyle Ashton Harris has been his own most reliable, malleable, and arresting subject. But his work is usually more about performance than self-portraiture: Harris is playing a role, often a dramatic and subversive one.
Walking—such a mundane, commonplace act, and yet one so imbued with symbolic significance. Independence. Discovery. Freedom. Dignity. Every step we take is a movement from departure to arrival, propelled by desire, whether borne of necessity or choice.
If you look down toward the river from the upper section of Braddock Avenue, you see a landscape entirely altered by heavy industry. The Edgar Thomson Steelworks was Andrew Carnegie’s first mill. With the other mills in the area now shut down, it is also his last.
Dawoud Bey's The Birmingham Project memorializes one of the most heart-wrenching attacks of the American civil rights movement: the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, by four Klansmen on September 15, 1963
When President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy in the wake of Reverend dementa Pinckney’s assassination in June 2015, I couldn’t help but feel that his voice was echoing, as if coming to me from some other time. In his remarks for the assassinated Democratic state senator and senior pastor at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Obama was careful to narrate the church’s history, from slavery to freedom and the long journey between, as a hush harbor, praise house, rest stop, and community center.
In 1925, Alain Locke wrote, “In Harlem, Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self-determination.” Nowhere is this historical sentiment more evident than in the photographs of James VanDerZee, the best known of a generation of studio photographers chronicling the breadth and depth of black life in the early and mid-twentieth century.