Black and Beautiful – A History of Photography and Black Subjects

01 Oct

Fascinating article discussing the history of black folks being photographed. Hat Tip to Truthout!

Black people were involved in photography as early as the 1870’s in the US – sometimes as travelling photographers doing family portraits, and several beginning to explore the more serious possibilities of the medium. The first known photographs taken by a black photographer date to the late 1850’s. Recently, historical researchers in North Carolina discovered a trove of photographs of slaves from the 1850’s, some done to use in “Wanted” posters for escapees.

The pic is Four women, Atlantic City, ca. 1960s by John W. Mosley.

“Posing Beauty”: A Conversation With Author Deborah Willis

Whether expressed in the archives of the Schomburg Center in Harlem, New York, or the African-American Research Library in Atlanta, Georgia, interest in the history of the black experience in America is resurgent. Seeking to understand themselves beyond the narrative du jour of slavery and Jim Crow, some contemporary scholars and archivists are revising black history through the nuanced lenses of African-American photographers.

“I was fascinated by images I saw of my family dating back to the 1800s; of my great-grand parents down to my grandmother – fascinated by the beauty” says Duane Cramer, a noted photographer living in San Francisco who has snapped everyone from Bill Clinton to Freda Payne and Willie Brown. “I was always awestruck by the power of the imagery … my sister and I, we knew how people looked – we knew what they did, and learned how fortunate we were to have such a collection dating back so many centuries.” Pointing out the fact that most African-Americans have no such illustrated records of their own family history, Cramer says “I would always ask my mother about these pictures … who are they?”

Curator, photographer, author and scholar Deborah Willis, knows a few things about the filmed lives of African-Americans. She is the award-winning author of “Reflections in Black,” a prodigious book published in 2000, which documents the photographed lives of African-Americans by African-Americans, 1840 to the present. Willis is the chair of the photography and imaging department at the Tisch School of the Arts, and in the lead-up to the eventful 2008 presidential election, she penned the best-selling book, “Obama: The Historic Campaign in Photographs.”

Out now is her latest treatise – “Posing Beauty: African-American Images from the 1890’s to the Present,” a handsomely-boundbook published by Norton, which, she says, “explores the ways in which our contemporary understanding of beauty has been informed by photographers and artists …”

A Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow, Willis says she started out writing the book with a list of theoretical questions, some of which were: What is Beauty? Is it tangible? Does beauty matter?

Following a request through her secretary, Willis made time for a lengthy conversation; discussing some of the more unexpected aspects of what it once meant, and means now, to be black and beautiful in America.

Max Eternity: I notice that you say you don’t attempt to define beauty in your book. Still, I’d like to know: If you have one, what is your personal definition of beauty?

Deborah Willis: I don’t have one. I’m really conscious of that. I believe my response to beauty is in the experiences that people have. I’m not defining it. I’m reflecting.

Goodness is beauty. It reflects in people’s attitude, and sense of style. That’s basically how I consider and recognize beauty. I’m not defining it. I’m reflecting. (more)

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Posted by on October 1, 2010 in Black History, The Post-Racial Life


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