African-Americans as Photographers and Photographic Subjects

David C Hart. Focal Encyclopedia of Photography: Digital Imaging, Theory and Applications, History and Science. Editor: Michael R Peres. 4th edition. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2007.

Stereotypes, Racial Uplift, and the Democratic Medium

By the end of the 19th century, African Americans in the United States had considerable experience with and access to the medium of photography allowing them, as image-makers and as subjects, a degree of control over their representations. The body of images that have come down to us by, and of, African American photographers over the course of the 20th century reveals that they were not singularly obsessed with racism. This photographic imagery can generally be said to reflect the interior lives, communities, and aspirations of African Americans, a testament to the very humanity that racism in American society denied.

Any discussion of African American photography necessarily engages the scholarship of Deborah Willis, an art historian and photographer whose numerous books constitute a significant contribution to the literature in the field. Willis has shown that the history of African American photographers in the United States begins at the time photography made its debut in the United States as the careers of two of its most successful practitioners reveal. Among the first daguerreotypists in the United States was Jules Lion (1810-1866) who learned the daguerreotype process in France in 1839 and operated a successful lithography and daguerreotype studio in New Orleans. In 1847 James Presley Ball (1825-1905) opened his Great Daguerrean Gallery of the West in Cincinnati, the largest such studio in the region, and later operated studios in Minnesota and Helena, Montana. Typical of Ball’s output were portraits of prominent members of his community with dignified, erect poses before painted backdrops, conventions borrowed from earlier grand manner portraiture and romantic painting. Although formally and technically similar to the work of their European American counterparts, portraits of and by African Americans at the turn of the century have significance beyond merely “documenting” businesses or middle-class membership. Such images countered the gross caricatures of African Americans as sambos, mammies, and pickaninnies prevalent in American print media throughout the 19th century.

Grounded in white supremacist fantasies and fears, stereotypic images of African Americans were inextricably linked to a larger social and political context after the Civil War, which saw the retreat from the efforts to grant African Americans the rights of citizenship. By the turn of the century Reconstruction had been abandoned and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the constitution granting former slaves full citizenship rights were undermined by the growth in racial segregation in the form of Jim Crow laws (upheld by the United States Supreme Court in 1898), mob violence by the Ku Klux Klan, and a system of tenant farming in the south that was, in effect, economic slavery. This led the historian, novelist, and political activist, W. E. B. DuBois, to declare in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), that racial division would be the problem of the new century, a sobering statement in an era of positivist rhetoric. DuBois’ most powerful metaphor, however, captured the psychic conflict resulting from racial division that African Americans possessed. African Americans were born with two warring identities, a double-consciousness, he argued, forming their world view. One was American, through which its darker citizens were viewed with contempt, the other Negro.

Old and New Negroes

In the wake of virulent mob violence and widespread white supremacist ideologies at the dawn of the 20th century, African Americans began an effort to redefine themselves through a discourse forming another dichotomy; that between an old Negro and a new Negro. Key to this effort was the cultivation of an educated black leadership who would not simply serve as an example of social and economic betterment but who would “reconstruct” and re-conceptualize themselves by turning their backs on the legacy and associations of an old Negro as dependent and deserving of pity and replacing it with a self-sufficient, confident, and creative new Negro.

One solution was education, and photography figured prominently in it. Many elites, both African- and European-American, felt that the task of the assimilation of vast numbers of poor and uneducated African Americans, many in the South, clearly fell on African Americans themselves. Historically black institutions such as Hampton University in Virginia and Tuskegee University in Alabama had been established to educate African Americans in skilled trades thereby “uplifting” them from the poverty and ignorance in which they were left after the Civil War. This was a goal and philosophy of Hampton graduate and Tuskegee founder Booker T. Washington. In keeping with Washington’s emphasis on trades-based education as a vehicle for social and economic betterment, in 1916 Tuskegee hired photographer Cornelius Marion Battey (1873-1927) to head its Photography Division in order to teach photography as an employable profession. Battey produced work that established his reputation as an accomplished portrait photographer and educator in the North, which would later win awards in the United States and Europe, an example of the viability of photography as a profession as well as photography’s aesthetic potential.

The benefits of education and the results of assimilation by African Americans were depicted in photographic form in the Exhibit of American Negroes organized by DuBois and mounted in 1900 in the Negro Pavilion at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. It consisted of hundreds of photographs of middle-class African Americans such as business owners, institutions of higher education, and their students. The photographs were accompanied by books, objects, and demographic statistics, with which DuBois sought to document, as a social scientist, a narrative of social uplift, the face of stereotypes, and re-position of African Americans in the national march toward progress only 35 years after emancipation. The Negro Pavilion also included images by Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952), a white photographer who was commissioned to take a series of over 150 photographs at Hampton, some of which contrasted poor rural African Americans with educated middle-class Hampton students and graduates. The Negro Pavilion’s photographs reflected a philosophy that appeared in a book published that same year by Washington and others titled A New Negro for a New Century, whose accounts and portraits of African Americans who had struggled against the odds to both advance themselves and thereby contribute to society were intended to shift the image of African Americans in the new century toward a new Negro and away from the gross stereotypes, black-face minstrelsy, and pseudoscience which were now relegated to the province of the old Negro.

The idea of representing a self-constructed, self-sufficient, and self-assured Negro that was distinct from, and contrasted with, an older, debased Negro was therefore not entirely new when Alain Locke published the New Negro: An Interpretation (1925), a highly influential anthology of artistic, literary, historical, sociological, and political essays. Locke, a professor of Philosophy at Howard University, called for a race-based aesthetic that looked to Africa for inspiration just as the Western tradition was grounded in the legacy of classical antiquity. Locke also characterized the Great Migration, the movement of thousands of African Americans from the south to northern cities (making New York’s Harlem the nation’s largest African American neighborhood), as a sign of modernism. The largely literary flowering of art production by and patronage of African Americans in the 1920s known as the Harlem Renaissance or New Negro movement was a phenomenon that actually took place in several cities such as New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC. Unprecedented artistic patronage flowed from individuals and organizations of both races such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909, whose magazine Crisis was edited by DuBois and which published the work of black photographers; the Harmon Foundation, which granted awards and funded exhibitions of African American artists; and white critic, writer, and photographer Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964). James Latimer Allen (1907-1977) was one of the few photographers to win a Harmon Foundation prize. Allen did not often engage African-inspired subject matter or modernist abstraction. Instead, he employed a soft-focus pictorialism as, for example, in a portrait of the New Negro movement’s most celebrated poet, Langston Hughes.

James Van Der Zee (1886-1983), a largely self-taught studio photographer unfamiliar with Locke’s ideas, owned one of Harlem’s most prominent studios and was also employed as photographer for pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Like other African American commercial photographers such as Addison Scurlock (1883-1964) in Washington, DC; Richard S. Roberts (1881-1936) of Columbia, South Carolina; and Prentice Herman Polk (1898-1984) in Tuskegee, Alabama; Van Der Zee photographed his community’s leaders, intelligentsia, and middle class. Regardless of their familiarity with Locke’s ideas, many of the portraits by these photographers constituted a type of modernism, not necessarily dependent on formal abstraction, but rather associated with the intellectual and creative achievement, social engagement, upward mobility, and urban sophistication of African Americans.

Van Der Zee actively worked to manipulate an image through careful composition, use of multiple negatives, retouching, dramatic lighting, and skillfully painted backdrops and props. An example is Wedding Day (1926), a photograph of a couple made in Van Der Zee’s Harlem studio. It is tempting to compare this multi-layered image to a photomontage created in the 1920s and 1930s. Van Der Zee was not familiar with either the avant-garde photographic practices in Europe nor the modernist straight photography created closer to home by Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1942) and Paul Strand (1890-1976). Van Der Zee’s skillful manipulation of his photographs reflects instead the efforts of the photographer and his clients to represent their urban and modern aspirations. The painted backdrop of a fireplace and a superimposed image of a girl (who plays with a newly available black doll) all speak to the couple’s dreams of a middle-class status, a domestic family life, and black pride; ideas in keeping with the New Negro movement.

The popularity of the New Negro in art and commercial portrait photography lasted for the first four decades of the 20th century as another type of old Negro emerged. Derived from a construct of the southern African American “folk” culture populated by humble, unassuming people whose way of life had remained unchanged, these images could be found in the photography of white photographers such as the pictorialist Rudolph Eickemeyer (1862-1932) and some images of “old” Negroes in Frances Benjamin Johnston’s Hampton photographs. Prentice H. Polk’s portrayals of poor and working class southern African Americans differed from these images of the folk old Negro in some crucial respects. Polk’s portraits from his Old Character Series such as The Boss (1932) evinces material lack in terms of sartorial appointment, but this unidentified woman’s confident pose, direct gaze, and serious expression exude the same dignity and self-confidence as the photographer’s wealthier sitters. Regardless of whether depictions of rural blacks were characterized as something outmoded, and to be abandoned in favor of the new and modern; or whether viewed nostalgically as a vanishing relic of American history; the taste for the folk would give way to the lure of the immediacy, claims to documentary truth, and hope of progressive social action in the era of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Documentary Photography in Black and White

The liberal sensibilities of Roy Stryker (1893-1976), head of the Historical division of the Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Securities Administration or FSA) during the Roosevelt administration led a bevy of socially conscious photographers including Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), Ben Shahn (1898-1969), Walker Evans (1903-1975), Marion Post Wolcott (1910-1990) and others to depict the plight of poor rural workers including unprecedented numbers of images of African Americans. Although tenant farming in the rural south and the squalid conditions of urban slums affected African Americans disproportionately during the Great Depression, it was Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother(1936) that would emerge as the iconic face of rural poverty. The FSAs only black photographer, however, Gordon Parks (1912-2006), on the suggestion of Stryker, created his best known photograph of Ella Watson, who worked for the federal government for twenty-five years as a cleaning woman.

In an ironic take on Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Watson stands, with mop and broom in front of the American flag prompting the viewer to ask why this woman should suffer, by virtue of her race and class, the denial of civil rights and poverty in the land of wealth and freedom. Parks later went on to a successful career for Life where he published photo-essays on such racially charged issues as gang violence in Harlem and segregation in the South and then as a film director.

Aesthetics and Politics

Roy DeCarava (b. 1919), who also worked for Life, credited Parks’ success as having opened doors to other African American photographers. DeCarava’s 1955 collaboration with Langston Hughes resulted in the publication of The Sweet Flypaper of Life in which the photographer’s images of real people were coupled with the writer’s fictional narrative. This nuanced glimpse into Harlem from “within” by two artists who knew it very well was an early precursor to street photography. Dissatisfied with the ideological bend of 1930s documentary photography, DeCarava’s work became increasingly modernist formally by combining reductive and abstracting qualities with the qualities inherent to the medium, such as the “decisive” photographic moment that characterized the work of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004).

In 1955 African American photojournalist Earnest C. Withers (b. 1922) self-published the Complete Story of Till Murder Case, an account of the brutal murder of African American teenager Emmett Till in Mississippi by two white men for having spoken to a white woman. These images also appeared in Jet, a photo and news weekly by Johnson Publications marketed to African Americans nationally. Like Gordon Parks’ socially conscious photojournalism in Life the following year on segregation in the South, Withers’ work provoked greater public consciousness of the horrors of racism as the Civil Rights movement gained strength.

Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan’s claim that what was important about any medium was the degree to which it changed social relations was played out in the 1960s as television, radio, and photographs, especially those in magazines, brought visceral evidence of the violent tumult of the Civil Rights Era. Perhaps the best known of the photographers who documented the moments of the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s was photojournalist Moneta J. Sleet, Jr. (1926-1996) whose images of civil rights marches, boycotts, and meetings were viewed by the readership of Ebonymagazine. His photograph of Coretta Scott King and her daughter at the funeral of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. received the Pulitzer Prize in photography, the first such award given to a black photographer. As the integrationist ideals of the Civil Rights movement represented by Martin Luther King, Jr. gave way to more confrontational approaches to confront racism, images of Malcolm X by photographers such as Robert L. Haggins along with books such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, co-authored by Alex Haley, were consumed by large numbers of Americans interested in understanding his legacy, even as many condemned and often misunderstood Malcolm.

The 1980s and 1990s witnessed a revival of interest in Malcolm X as evidenced by the neonationalist lyrics of rap music, an array of commercial products such as baseball caps sporting an “X”, and Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X. T-shirts and books, both new and reprinted, made significant use of the slain leader’s photographic image. This cultural phenomenon occurred in quite different circumstances than those of the 1960s. As British cultural theorist Stuart Hall observed, by the 1980s the “age of innocence” had passed in which fixed notions of black identity generated within the black community that employed sexism, homophobia, or binary oppositions of “good” versus “bad” public images could go unchallenged. It was a nuanced and diverse approach to African American identity that informed cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson’s 1995 book that analyzed the image of Malcolm X in American culture, Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X. Designer David Tran followed suit with a dust jacket for the book whose aged, creased, and unattributed photograph of its subject spoke to the cultural construction of Malcolm’s legacy and the contested terrain on which it was played out.

Negotiating African American Cultural Identities

The de-colonization of Africa beginning with Ghana in 1956 and followed in rapid succession by other West African nations in the 1960s coincided with a growing consciousness in the United States among African Americans of the need for, and achievement of, civil rights, and black identity as part of an African Diaspora. For many people, Africa did not represent a foreign land to which contemporary African Americans had no cultural connection, but an ancestral home and legacy. Renewed interest in the 1970s with African cultural influences still present in the United States and the controversy over the displacement of residents of the South Carolina Sea Islands where these cultural practices were still evident served as the impetus for Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe’s (b. 1951) photographic essay documenting the people of Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, in 1982. With a forward by Alex Haley, whose book Roots popularized the historical legacy of the African Diaspora, Moutoussamy-Ashe’s project was informed by a fear—dismissed by contemporary scholars—that these enclaves of Africanisms needed to be captured in photographic form before they vanished forever. Although this fear was similar to the sense of nostalgia and loss that motivated white photographer Doris Ulmann’s (1882-1934) photographs of African Americans in the same region some 50 years earlier in Roll Jordan Roll, Moutoussamy-Ashe’s collection of photographs, taken together, allow for a sense of the transformation and change that characterize all cultures over time. For example, the man in his boat on the cover of the book illustrated the residents’ need to travel to the mainland and thus undermined the sense of physical and cultural isolation upon which the concept of a vanishing culture in earlier photographs of life on the islands depended. It is this approach that would, in a deeper and more complex way, characterize the meanings of Africanisms and our relationship with them in the work of Chester Higgins (b. 1946) and Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953) in the 1990s. Weems, who has degrees in both fine arts and folklore, combined in her mixed media works objects, photographs, and text that speak to the material culture, oral histories, and the cultural memories associated with places such as the sea islands that have long held interest for the students of African American history and culture. Far from treating the sea islands as a rare site from which to trace “authentic” African cultural “roots” or as a cultural museum to be preserved, Weems’ works, as Lisa Gail Collins has observed, conveyed the dynamic nature of cultural exchange over time and how any exploration of the past is necessarily viewed through the lens of the present.

By the 1980s the lessons learned from the Civil Rights Era, the women’s movement, and post-colonial and post-modern theory were employed by artists questioning national, gender, class, and racial identities including African American artists who worked in photography. An example is the public debate in the mainstream media, and among politicians, artists, and intellectuals concerning the development and meaning of hip-hop music and culture in the 1980s. The people who listened to and dressed like the performers of this music, whose hard-hitting lyrics “rapped” about the drugs, violence, and other realities of life in poor, inner city neighborhoods were often conflated in public discourses with the very subject matter of these lyrics. The result was that both the music and those who listened to it were seen as threats, especially if they were African American or Latino. It is in this context that we understand the photographs of Coreen Simpson (b. 1942) who depicted the urban youths of New York’s hip-hop culture. Works in her B-Boy series, by lending dignity to their subjects, countered a widespread vilification of these youths and their distinctive forms of dress and music. Dawoud Bey (b. 1953) likewise questions identity in the large format Polaroid that he created. The multi-paneled individual and group portraits, taken from slightly different positions that sometimes fragment the subjects, evoked the dynamic processes of becoming who we are like the unfolding narrative of a triptych, comic strip, or film.

The work of several photographers in the 1980s including Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) and Lyle Ashton Harris (b. 1965) reveal how the intersections of racial, gender, and sexual identities are a contested terrain. Mapplethorpe, a gay, white photographer, intended his photographs of nude African American men in his Black Book (1986) to highlight their beauty by referring to the artistic conventions, some associated with the sculpture of classical antiquity, that have long equated idealized beauty with whiteness. Kobena Mercer, drawing in part on feminist analyses of pornography and Laura Mulvey’s analysis of how women are filmed, made the most thoughtful critique of Mapplethorpe’s work regarding race by arguing that these photographs were also exercises in racial fetishization, ugly re-inscriptions of the black body as hypersexual and as an erotic object offered up for the delectation of a mastering white gaze.

African American photographer Lyle Ashton Harris’ self- and group portraits treat black, gay, male, and national identities as complex and intersecting categories. In Miss Girl, 1987-1988, from his America’s Series, Harris presents himself in a contrived, campy pose, and the drag of whiteface, women’s makeup, a wig, and the Styrofoam hat commonly worn at political conventions. The artifice of these disjunctive contrivances can be read as an indicator of how personal identities are socially constructed categories, but also how to desire is an inherent part of the photographic process.

In the 1980s and 1990s several African American women artists including Pat Ward Williams (b. 1948), Carrie Mae Weems, and Lorna Simpson (b. 1960) combined text with photographic images in ways that questioned both image and language as signifying systems and by extension other categories such as gender, race, history, and the politics of media and other institutions. Such work was informed by post-colonial, African American, feminist and post-structuralist theory that was profoundly influential on a wide range of artists working in a variety of media in the 1980s. The use of image and text in art in the 1980s by African American artists often simultaneously questioned the ability of any text—and by extension an image—to convey fixed, universally understood meanings while at the same time uncovering the ways that language and images can be used as tools of oppression. Precedents for artists who combined images and text necessarily drew on a number of artists both black and white. The conceptual art of John Baldessari (b. 1931) and Joseph Kosuth (b. 1945) in the 1960s and 1970s provoked and confounded our notions of how systems of signification function with works that juxtaposed images and text in works such as Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965). Conceptual artist Adrian Piper’s (b. 1948), Mythic Being series in the 1970s included several works where the artist often posed as a black male. The images of these performances served as the basis for posters with text that confrontationally addressed issues of race, class, and gender and social attitudes about these categories.

The work of Lorna Simpson juxtaposes images and text to reveal how both function, in the post-structuralist sense, as slippery signifiers at several levels, especially as they relate to the experiences of black women. Like much of her work from the 1980s, Three Seated Figures (1989) is a multiple image of a black woman’s torso dressed in a loose fitting shift with the head cropped, accompanied by a series of individual words or short phrases on labels. Artist Barbara Kruger combined the image-text vocabulary of advertising to confront the viewer’s assumptions about desire and the degree to which even the act of looking, the gaze, is invested with the power politics that place women and men on different rungs of the social ladder. Simpson’s works also interrupt the power of the viewers gaze, but also evoke the histories and legacies of racism as they are intertwined with gender. By fragmenting and covering the body Simpson denies the gaze, the means by which racial fears and fantasies are played out. By being open-ended, the text is similarly disruptive of clear or simple interpretation, juxtaposing the individual, subjective experience of women and the supposedly objective systems by which facts are determined, thus calling into question the validity of each. Vacillating between image and text, the work asks us to contemplate notions of the personal and the universal and the means by which photographs and language convey meanings.

The work of African American photographers in the 1980s and 1990s reveals broader lessons about how we conceptualize African American photography in the 20th century. What is fundamentally important is not so much the race of the photographer or the search for an authentic and singular expression of blackness. Ultimately such designations guarantee nothing in terms of artistic expression; rather understanding African American cultural products necessarily means the simultaneous recognition of the variety and diversity of African American expression on the one hand and the commonalities in African American communities, culture, and practices, what Powell calls “the dark center,” on the other. Whether a simple portrait in one’s Sunday best, a visual testament of social conditions or protest, or a multi-layered and multimedia critique of systems of communication and cultural categories, African American photography in the 20th century faces us with the challenges of the human condition.