Thomas Allen Harris’ documentary Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People will be playing at New York’s Film Forum through September 9. “The film is a cornucopia of Americana that reveals deeply disturbing truths about the history of race relations while expressing joyous, life-affirming sentiments about the ability of [African-American] artists and amateurs alike to assert their identity through the photographic lens,” Film Forum writes. “What the film strives to say is, when everything around me is telling me I am not worth anything, I can present myself and have a likeness of myself and my talents that shows I have values,” Harris told the New York Times. Inspired by the film’s New York City premiere, we’ve highlighted the works of ten essential African-American photographers who have documented the African-American experience in profound and inspiring ways.
James Van Der Zee
Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee is celebrated for his pioneering, glamorous portraits of the emergent African-American middle-class during the ’20s and ’30s. He also captured the thriving celebrity, arts, and music culture of the time. Through the use of ghostly double exposures, the artist portrayed deceased family members or imaginary figures (suggesting the future children of a happily married couple, for example) in his photos. The influence of his unique retouching techniques and sensitive, poetic approach has been frequently understated.
Cinema fans recognize Gordon Parks as a filmmaker (the first African-American to write, produce, direct, and score a film), but he was a photography legend. Parks was the first African-American hired at Life magazine where his photographic essays won him international attention. “Gordon Parks was one of the seminal figures of twentieth century photography. A humanitarian with a deep commitment to social justice, he left behind a body of work that documents many of the most important aspects of American culture from the early 1940s up until his death in 2006, with a focus on race relations, poverty, Civil Rights, and urban life,” The Gordon Parks Foundation writes.
Carrie Mae Weems
“My primary concern in art, as in politics, is with the status and place of Afro-Americans in our country,” Weems stated in a 1993 interview. Her use of text, depictions of family, and her own constructed image tackle issues of race, gender, and identity. “In one way or another, my work endlessly explodes the limits of tradition,” she told fellow photographer Dawoud Bey. “I’m determined to find new models to live by,”
Coreen Simpson is best known for her striking, fashionable portraits of African-American New York City nightlife and B-boys/B-girls during the 1980s. “When I was growing up in Brooklyn I remember seeing a black man on Pacific street wearing an orange suit and everybody stopped,” she recalled in an interview with The Fader. “I never forgot that. He looked like a god. This was in the ’50s. That was a transcendent moment for me. He seemed to be moving in slow motion and it just blew my mind. Clothes and jewelry have always been very important to me in observance of how people present themselves because that’s empowerment. Everything I do is about self-presentation and empowerment.”
Simson’s cinematic photographs resemble stills from experimental films, using text fragments, images of the body, collage, and personal narrative to address issues of racial and gender identity. She’s also interested in shared histories, contrasting African-American women from the past and present in her images. “My interests in photography have always been paralleled by an interest in film, particularly the way that one structurally builds sequences in film,” she said in an interview with artist Coco Fusco. “Since my work has always played with the relationship of image and text and the way that the viewer interprets that relationship, film offers me a multi-layered version of that.”
Self-taught photographer Jamel Shabazz documented New York City and hip hop style and culture during the 1970s and ‘80s through posed, spirited snapshots. “I’d approach them and say ‘Excuse me, brother. My name is Jamel Shabazz and I’m a photographer. When I see you, I see greatness. I see the future,’” he said of his images. Wild Style director Charlie Ahearn documented the time period in Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer (watch the trailer), sharing stories behind the photos with appearances from artists like Fab 5 Freddy and KRS-One.
Polk attended Tuskegee Institute in Alabama studying with African-American photographer C. M. Battey, but was barred from further studies at photography schools due to his race. Instead, he completed a correspondence course and eventually opened up his own studio, becoming Tuskegee’s official photographer. His images of African-Americans in the rural south during the 1930s portrayed citizens with dignity and sensitivity. When he created his striking 1932 portrait titled The Boss, Polk offered this powerful explanation:
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.
James Presley Ball
Abolitionist, studio owner, the official photographer of the 25th anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, and renowned daguerreotypist, James Presley Ball photographed famous figures such as Charles Dickens, Ulysses S. Grant, and Queen Victoria.
Photo credit: David Hobby
He photographed Run–D.M.C. in the 1980s during the height of their career, the Million Man March, the Crown Heights riots, and other worldwide events for the past 44 years. Eli Reed became the first full-time African-American photographer employed by Magnum Agency. His book Black in America is essential reading.
“He was looking at everyday life in Harlem from the inside, not as a sociological or political vehicle. No photographer black or white before him had really shown ordinary domestic life so perceptively and tenderly, so persuasively,” Peter Galassi, the chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, said of photographer Roy DeCarava. “One of the things that got to me, was that I felt that black people were not being portrayed in a serious and in an artistic way,” the artist stated in 1982.