Moutoussamy-Ashe, Jeanne 1951–
Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe 1951–
Photographer, social activist
Photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe has turned her personal tragedy into a meaningful dialogue for children and adults about the ravages of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Moutoussamy-Ashe, whose husband, tennis pro Arthur Ashe, died of AIDS-related causes in 1993, has published a book of photographs detailing her husband’s last year, using their daughter’s experiences as a point of view.
The resulting work, Daddy and Me: A Photo Story of Arthur Ashe and His Daughter, Camera, has been praised for its ability to demystify AIDS for children. Life magazine reporter Claudie Glenn Dowling noted that Moutoussamy-Ashe’s pictures, combined with a text of her young daughter’s words about a family facing mortality, “will touch anyone who has imagined what it is like for the child left behind.”
The book Daddy and Me is Moutoussamy-Ashe’s third collection of photographs to have been published since 1982. The college-trained photojournalist managed to juggle her career as an artist, her duties as a mother, and her status as wife of a sports celebrity through almost two decades of triumph and turmoil. Moutoussamy-Ashe credits her late husband, one of the best-known tennis stars in America, with encouraging her to develop as an individual.
“I was very independent,” the photographer told Ebony magazine. “I think those were the things Arthur loved about me. That I didn’t just follow him. I followed him, yes. But there was a partnership. There was some-thing for both of us to exchange…. He taught me a greater love of myself. He brought out so many things in me that I didn’t know I had inside.” That strength and self-love, Moutoussamy-Ashe added, will help her face the challenges of single parenthood and new celebrity as a spokesperson for AIDS research.
Moutoussamy-Ashe was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, the only child of an architect and an interior designer. She told Essence magazine that she grew up in a “very visual environment,” with parents who encouraged her to draw, paint, and photograph. She began formal painting classes at the Art Institute of Chicago when she was only eight and pursued that craft until she
At a Glance…
Born in 1951 in Chicago, IL;daughter of an architect and an interior designer; married Arthur Ashe (a tennis player, writer, and social activist), 1976; children: Camera (daughter). Education. Attended College of New Rochelle, and Cooper Union School of Art.
Member of NBC-TV graphic arts staff, c. early 1970s; professional photographer, 1975—. Work has been exhibited at Kenkeleba Gallery, New York City, Tisch School of the Arts, New York City, and at other galleries, museums, and libraries. Has done charity work for inner city literacy programs and AIDS-awareness groups.
Addresses: Home —Mt. Kisco, NY. Office —c/o Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 201 East SOth St., New York, NY 10022.
was in her teens. Then she discovered the photography collection Sweet Flypaper of Life, by Roy DeCarava, and decided to become a photographer herself.
Leaving Chicago behind, Moutoussamy spent a year at the College of New Rochelle near New York City before transferring to Cooper Union, one of Manhattan’s most prestigious art schools, to finish her degree. In one of the many demonstrations of her independence, the young student chose to spend her junior year abroad, visiting seven West African countries and producing three full-sized photographic collections.
Her experiences in Africa helped Moutoussamy to land a full-time job at the New York office of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) even before she had finished college. She began as a member of NBC’s graphic arts department and, by the mid-1970s, had established herself as a still photographer in the male-dominated world of photojournalism. Her work as a documentary journalist-photographer subsequently shaped the composition of her noncommercial work. Art dealer Frank Stewart told Essence that Moutoussamy’s art photographs combine “a strong sense of people, especially black people” with a “classical simplicity of design,” to produce images that make “powerfully direct visual statements.”
Although a friend of Moutoussamy-Ashe’s recalled in Ebony that the young photographer predicted she would marry tennis star Arthur Ashe, Moutoussamy-Ashe herself said that she was deeply involved in her career at the time and was not expecting to attract the attention of the superstar. They met during a New York City benefit for the United Negro College Fund in 1976. Ashe was one of the many celebrities on hand to promote the scholarship foundation. Moutoussamy had been sent by NBC to shoot photographs of the event.
At the time, Arthur Ashe was at the pinnacle of a spectacular tennis career that included victories at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open, to name just a few. He was a pioneer in professional tennis, the first black man to win at Wimbledon, and he was also emerging as one of the most eloquent champions of black athletes in all sports. Endowed with fame, fortune, good looks, and charm, Ashe was the object of widespread adoration both within and outside of the sporting world. Moutoussamy-Ashe recalled in Ebony that when she first glimpsed her future husband, “there were so many women standing around him that I didn’t even think about Arthur paying any attention to me.”
Nor did the tennis star make a good first impression upon Moutoussamy. When he spied her taking his picture, she told Ebony, he said: “Photographers sure are getting cuter.” Moutoussamy-Ashe added: “I thought that was so bad. I thought it was cocky and I read it as a little sexist. It singled me out as a woman, which was totally against what I wanted to portray. I think he did it just to see what kind of reaction he was going to get. And he got one.” Moutoussamy rolled her eyes in mock disgust and walked away. Later that same day, Ashe tracked her down at NBC and asked her out. On their first date a few days later, Moutoussamy brought him to her cubicle at NBC and showed him her portfolio. “He genuinely liked my photographs and the stories behind them,” she told Ebony. “He got big points for that.” Four months later, they were married.
Moutoussamy-Ashe was not satisfied to settle into the role of celebrity wife. In fact, at first she hated being called Mrs. Arthur Ashe, and she insisted upon using her hyphenated maiden and married names. Her newfound affluence and prominence did affect her career, however. She was able to leave NBC and devote her energies to artistic projects that she had wanted to do for some time. Her husband encouraged her in these pursuits, providing moral support when she was in danger of failing through self-doubt. “It was Arthur’s influence that helped me to take my ideas and put them into book form,” she explained in Ebony. “Often you feel you have the passion to do things, but to actually see it as a finished project has not always been my forte. Arthur’s confidence really brought that out in me. He gave me the comfort level that I could do that.”
In 1982 Moutoussamy-Ashe published her first collection of photographs, Daufuskie Island: A Photographic Essay. The work is a candid exploration of the lives of the remaining Gullah-speaking black inhabitants of South Carolina’s off-shore islands and coastal regions. Essence contributor Judith Wilson called the book “a haunting … tribute to the last bastion of Gullah tradition.” Moutoussamy-Ashe followed this work with a 1986 collection, Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers, a history of African American women’s contributions to the photographic record. Moutoussamy-Ashe managed to complete these projects while her marriage with Ashe made press as “the quintessential Perfect Couple, the kind of lovers for whom the word ’soulmates’ was invented, a twosome whose love for one another could be seen—and felt—from afar,” to quote Ebony correspondent Laura B. Randolph.
Moutoussamy-Ashe had been married only three years when her husband suffered a serious heart attack in 1979. Ashe underwent several rounds of surgery in the early 1980s and appeared to be completely recovered by 1984. His life was quite full: he published books, wrote newspaper editorials about blacks in sports, and continued his celebrity as a television commentator for tennis events. “Arthur was the amazing one,” Moutoussamy-Ashe told Ebony. “He was a wonder to watch and behold.” In 1987, the couple celebrated the birth of their daughter, appropriately named Camera.
The happy and prosperous Ashe family was rocked by devastating news soon after Camera’s birth. Ashe discovered that he had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion administered during his heart surgery. To date the disease has no cure; it usually causes death within ten years. Ashe and his wife tried to keep the news from leaking to the press in order to spare their young daughter the pain and social stigmatization that often accompanies the disease. Finally, in 1992, Ashe and Moutoussamy-Ashe called a press conference to announce the tragedy themselves. Ashe began reading a prepared statement to the assembled reporters but was unable to continue after mentioning his daughter. His wife stepped to his place at the podium and finished his statement for him, a gesture that forever marked her in the press as courageous and poised.
Arthur Ashe’s own mother had died when he was six, and he had few memories and not a single photograph of her. Moutoussamy-Ashe decided that her own daughter would not suffer such a fate. As her husband’s condition worsened, she took numerous photographs of him with Camera. As the prints multiplied, they showed parent and child experiencing the joy of one another despite impending mortality. Even before Ashe’s death in February of 1993, Moutoussamy-Ashe had decided to publish some of the photographs with a text designed especially for young children. The idea for the book, she told Ebony, developed “after Camera had an experience at school where someone said to her, ’I saw your daddy on TV, and your daddy has AIDS.’” The photographer said she wanted to do something “to help other children understand you can live with illness and help people who are sick.”
Daddy and Me was released late in 1993 and was the subject of a Life magazine essay. Moutoussamy-Ashe told Ebony that she hoped the book would teach an uplifting message to others who were faced with the same kind of suffering she and Camera faced. “I didn’t just want to sit around and feel badly for the things that we weren’t able to do where there were so many good things we did,” she said.” And I’m going to keep celebrating. The fact that Arthur is not here physically has not stopped my communicating with him or my relationship with him.”
Moutoussamy-Ashe plans to continue her photographic career, facing the future as a single parent and professional woman. Her husband’s last gift to her was a Hasselblad camera, and she told Ebony: “That is something he left me with. I’m sure if he were here he’d be saying, ’Take those pictures, girl. I bought you this camera and I want you to go for it. ’” She added that even death has not eroded the feelings she has for Ashe and her dependence upon his example of confidence, hard work, and integrity. “I know it sounds cliched,” she concluded, “but I am really surrounded and sustained daily by the power of our love. When you’re in a relationship, I don’t think you recognize the everlasting power it can have. But I feel that now. And it is that, more than anything else, that has helped me to walk through this period.”
Daufuskie Island: A Photographic Essay, University of South Carolina Press, 1982.
Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers, Dodd, 1986.
Daddy and Me: A Photo Story of Arthur Ashe and His Daughter, Camera, Knopf, 1993.
Ashe, Arthur, Days of Grace (memoir), Random House, 1993.
Ebony, October 1993, pp. 27-34.
Essence, May 1986, pp. 120-21; March 1994, p. 67.
Harper’s Bazaar, February 1990, p. 146.
Life, November 1993, pp. 61-68.
New York Times, March 3, 1991, p. 46.
Time, April 12, 1993, p. 81.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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