African Americans shaped the practice of photography from its origin in 1840 and have participated in its history as practitioners and subjects. The larger American public was fascinated with the daguerreotype as soon as Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851) publicized the process in France in 1839. The French inventor Nicéphore Niépce (1765–1833) produced the earliest extant photographic image made by a camera obscura in 1827. After the death of Niépce, Daguerre successfully fixed an image and in January 1839 announced to the Paris press his discovery, which he named the daguerreotype. Six months after the public announcement of the process in Paris, Jules Lion, a free man of color, a lithographer, and portrait painter, exhibited the first successful daguerreotypes in New Orleans.
The African-American public was enthusiastic about Daguerre's process of making likenesses (which we now call photographs). These were numerous free black men and women who established themselves as daguerreans, photographers, inventors, artists, and artisans who had gained local and national recognition in their respective cities. Portraits of prominent and lesser-known African Americans were produced regularly in galleries and studios throughout the country. The portraits of well-known African Americans soon became popular, and the practice of private photography—the photographing of individuals for personal collections and albums—became more and more the artistic method for creating a likeness. Most of the photographs taken at this time were not intended for publication or public presentation, but noted citizens and other families from all walks of life thought it important to have their likenesses preserved for posterity.
During most of photography's early history, images produced by African-American photographers presented idealized glimpses of family members in romanticized or dramatic settings. Photographers such as C. M. Battey and James VanDerZee sought to integrate elements of romanticism and classicism, as did the painters of the previous centuries. Most photographs taken in the early years were made to commemorate a special occasion in the sitter's life—such as marriage, birth, graduation, confirmation, and anniversaries—or the achievement of a particular social or political success.
One of the earliest known photographical studies in America of African-American physiognomy was conducted in 1850 by Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz and J. T. Zealy, a white daguerreotypist in Columbia, South Carolina. The latter was hired to take a series of portraits of African-born slaves on nearby plantations. The daguerreotypes were anatomical studies of the faces and the nude upper bodies of African men and women. The photographs were to give visual evidence of the "natural difference in size of limbs, heads, and configurations of muscles," thereby establishing a theory that blacks were different and inferior. Much of the work of nineteenth-century black photographers was in sharp contrast to these scientific and stereotypical images.
The first publicized exhibition of a work by a black photographer was held on March 15, 1840, in the Hall of the St. Charles Museum in the city of New Orleans. The exhibition, reported to have drawn a large crowd, was organized and sponsored by the artist Jules Lion. In 1854 Glenalvin Goodridge, a black photographer from York, Pennsylvania, won the prize for "best ambrotypes" (a process using a wet plate) at the York County fair. Other black photographers who won distinction in the nineteenth century at exhibitions and expositions include James Presley Ball, who exhibited his daguerreotypes in 1855 at the Ohio Mechanics Annual Exhibition, and Harry Shepherd, who won the first prize at the 1891 Minnesota State fair and later exhibited photographs of the Tuskegee Institute (now University) at the Paris Exposition in 1900. In 1895 Daniel Freeman, known as the first black photographer in Washington, D.C., exhibited his works in the Negro Building at the 1895 Atlanta Exposition.
Between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the twentieth century, numerous itinerant photographers flourished in the North. But even earlier several African-American photographers were able to open their own studios. In the 1840s and 1850s James Ball and Augustus Washington (1820–?) operated galleries in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Hartford, Connecticut; Jules Lion had his own studio in New Orleans. (Ball and Washington were active abolitionists who often used their photographic skills to expose the inhumane institution of slavery and promote the abolitionist movement.) Harry Shepherd opened his first portrait gallery in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1887, where he employed eight attendants. He advertised that "his patrons are among all classes—from the millionaires to day wage workers." Shepherd was one of the few African-American members of the National Photographers Association of America.
Fanny J. Thompson, a musician and composer living in Memphis, Tennessee, in the 1880s, studied photography and was one of the first to record African-American women working in the field. The Goodridge brothers—Glenalvin, Wallace, and William—began their careers in York, Pennsylvania, in the 1850s before settling in East Saginaw, Michigan, in 1866. They opened their first studio the following year. In 1884 they were commissioned by the U.S. Department of Forestry to photograph views of the Saginaw Valley woodlands.
At the turn of the century photography expanded in a variety of ways. Newspapers, journals, and books published photographic images. Courses in photography were offered in schools and colleges, and correspondence courses were also available. C. M. Battey, an accomplished portraitist and fine-art photographer, was a noted educator in photography. Battey founded the Photography Division at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1916. In 1917 Crisis magazine highlighted Battey in the "Men of the Month" column as "one of the few colored photographers who has gained real artistic success." Battey did the most extensive portrait series of African-American leaders produced in the nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries. His photographic portraits of John Mercer Langston, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Paul Laurence Dunbar were sold nationally and were reproduced on postcards and posters.
From 1900 to 1919 African-American photographers flourished in larger cities, producing images of both rural and urban experiences. They included Arthur Bedou (1882–1966) of New Orleans; King Daniel Ganaway (1883–?) of Chicago, who in 1918 received first prize in the John Wanamaker Annual Exhibition of photographers; and Arthur Laidler Macbeth (1864–?) of Charles-town, South Carolina, Baltimore, and Norfolk. Macbeth won many awards and citations for his photographs and was among the pioneers in motion pictures. He invented "Macbeth's Daylight Projecting Screen" for showing stereopticon and moving pictures in the daytime.
In 1911 Addison Scurlock, who was Howard University's official photographer, opened a studio in Washington, D.C., which he operated with his wife and sons, Robert and George, until 1964; after that time his sons continued to operate the studio. In New York City James VanDerZee, undoubtedly the best known of black studio photographers, began capturing the spirit and life of New York's Harlem in the 1920s and continued to do so for more than fifty years.
During the period of the Harlem Renaissance through the Great Depression and the New Deal, photographers began to exhibit their work widely in their communities. In the 1920s young black photographers who viewed themselves as artists moved to the larger cities in search of education, patronage, and support for their art. Harlem was a cultural mecca for many of these photographers. In 1921 the New York Public Library's 135th Street branch in Manhattan (now known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture) organized its first exhibition of work by black artists, titled "The Negro Artists." Two photographers, C. M. Battey and Lucy Calloway of New York, displayed six photographs in this exhibition of over sixty-five works of art. The Harmon Foundation was one of the first philanthropic organizations to give attention, cash awards, and exhibition opportunities to black photographers. These awards came to be known as the William E. Harmon Awards for Distinguished Achievement Among Negroes. In 1930 a special prize of $50 for photographic work was added in the name of the Commission on Race Relations.
African American Photographers Guild
Designed to celebrate those contributions made by African Americans in the field of photography, the African American Photographers Guild (AAPG) is also devoted to providing an environment for African Americans wishing to learn about photography. Levels of expertise of the members vary; some are established professionals, while others are intrigued by, or just discovering, the craft. The program is mainly committed to fostering excellence in photography and documenting the culture and experience of African Americans. Work by professional African-American photographers and photo hobbyists are promoted through sponsored exhibitions and publications.
AAPG also helps emphasize the historical significance of African Americans in the field of photography and informs the public of how valuable and creative a medium of expression it can be. On its Web site (www.aapguild.org) are listings of African-American photographers from the 1840s to the present, an instructional site for the amateur and professional photographer, discussion and mailing lists, and chat rooms. The AAPG is open to all commercial, freelance, and newspaper photographers.
A year earlier, James Latimer Allen (1907–1977) exhibited his portraits of African-American men, women, and children in a Harmon Foundation exhibition. Allen also photographed such writers of the period as Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay. Other photographers active between 1920 and 1940 included several students of C. M. Battey, among them Elise Forrest Harleston (1891–1970) of Charleston, South Carolina, and P. H. Polk (1898–1985) of Tuskegee, Alabama. Harleston opened a photography studio with her painter husband, Edwin Harleston, after studying with Battey in 1922. Polk opened his first studio at Tuskegee in 1927. The following year he was appointed to the faculty of Tuskegee Institute's photography department, photographed prominent visitors such as Mary McLeod Bethune and Paul Robeson, and made extensive portraits of scientist-inventor George Washington Carver. Richard S. Roberts (1881–1936) of Columbia, South Carolina, began studying photography through correspondence courses and specialist journals, and opened his studio in the early 1920s. According to Roberts's advertisements, his studio took superior photographs by day or night. Twin brothers Morgan (1910–1993) and Marvin Smith (1910–) were prolific photographers in Harlem in the 1930s and early 1940s. They photographed members of the community, as well as political rallies, bread lines during the Great Depression, families, and "Lindy Hoppers" in the Savoy Ballroom.
During the Depression, numerous images were taken of the lives of African Americans. The Resettlement Administration, later known as the Farm Security Administration (FSA), was created in 1935 as an independent coordinating agency; it inherited rural relief activities and land-use administration from the Department of the Interior, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. From 1935 to 1943 the FSA photography project generated 270,000 images of rural, urban, and industrial America. Many of the heavily documented activities of the FSA were of black migrant workers in the South. In 1937 Gordon Parks Sr. decided that he wanted to be a photographer after viewing the work of the Farm Security Administration photographers. He was hired by the FSA in 1941, and during World War II he worked as an Office of War Information correspondent. After the war he was a photographer for Standard Oil Company. In 1949 he became the first African-American photographer to work on the staff of Life magazine.
Roy DeCarava is the forerunner of contemporary urban photography. He studied art at Cooper Union in New York City, the Works Progress Administration's Harlem Art Center, and the George Washington Carver Art School. In 1955 DeCarava collaborated with Langston Hughes in producing a book titled The Sweet Flypaper of Life, which depicted the life of a black family in Harlem. In 1952 DeCarava became one of the first black photographers to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1954 he founded a photography gallery that became one of the first galleries in the United States devoted to the exhibition and sale of photography as a fine art. DeCarava founded the Kamoinge Workshop for black photographers in 1963.
From the 1930s through the 1960s photographers began working as photojournalists for local newspapers and national magazines marketed to African-American audiences, including Our World, Ebony, Jet, Sepia, and Flash, among others. Only a few African-American photo-journalists, most notably Gordon Parks Sr., Richard Saunders, Bert Miles, and Roy DeCarava, were employed for the larger picture magazines such as Life, Look, Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated. Most of them learned photography while in the military and studied photography in schools of journalism.
This period also encompassed the beginning of reportage and the documentation of public pageantry and events. In the 1930s smaller handheld cameras and faster films aided photographers in expressing their frustration and discontent with social and political conditions within their communities. The civil rights movement was well documented by photographers such as Moneta Sleet Jr. (New York and Chicago), Jack T. Franklin (Philadelphia), Charles "Teenie" Harris (Pittsburgh), Howard Morehead (Los Angeles), Bertrand Miles (New York), Austin Hansen (New York), and U.S. Information Service Agency photographers Richard Saunders and Griffith Davis.
From 1935 to the early 1990s musical pioneers were the frequent subjects of Chuck Stewart (1927–), Milt Hinton, Roy DeCarava, and Bert Andrews (1931–1993), who photographed performing artists in the studio, onstage, and in nightclubs. Hinton received his first camera in 1935 while he was playing in Cab Calloway's band. As a jazz bassist and photographer, Hinton photographed his musician friends and colleagues. In 1950 Chuck Stewart, who studied photography at Ohio University, began photographing jazz musicians and vocalists onstage and in his studio in New York City. His photographs were used for album covers, publicity stills, and illustrations for books and articles of jazz. Stewart photographed virtually every well-known musician and vocalist from 1950 to 1990; his coverage includes blues, bebop, fusion, salsa, and popular music. Bert Andrews photographed black theatrical productions on and off Broadway from the early 1960s through the early 1990s. Among the production companies whose plays he photographed are the Negro Ensemble Company, the New Federal Theatre, and the Frank Silvera Writers' Workshop.
During the active years of the civil rights and Black Power movements—the early 1960s through the 1970s—a significant number of socially committed men and women became photographers, documenting the struggles, achievements, and tragedies of the freedom movement. Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) photographers Doug Harris, Elaine Tomlin, and Bob Fletcher were in the forefront in documenting the voter registration drives in the South; Robert Sengstacke, Howard Bingham, Jeffrey Scales, and Brent Jones photographed the activities of the Black Panther Party and desegregation rallies in the North and on the West Coast. From 1969 to 1986 six African-American photographers received the coveted Pulitzer Prize in photography. The first was Moneta Sleet Jr. in 1969 for his photograph of Coretta Scott King and her daughter at the funeral of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Following in subsequent years were Ovie Carter (1975) for international reporting for his photographs of famine in Africa and India; Matthew Lewis (1975) for his portrait studies of Washingtonians; John White (1982) for work published in the Chicago Sun-Times; Michel Du Cille (1985) for the photographs of the Colombian earthquake; and Ozier Muhammad (1985) for international reporting for the photographic essay "Africa: The Desperate Continent."
In the 1970s universities and art colleges began to offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in photography, and African-American photographers began studying photography and creating works for exhibition purposes. Others studied in community centers and workshops. The symbolic and expressive images of the works produced in the 1980s and 1990s offer sociological and psychological insights into the past, as well as examinations of contemporary social themes, such as racism, unemployment, child and sexual abuse, and death and dying. Most of these works are informed by personal experiences. Significant contributors to the development of this genre are Albert Chong, Hank Sloane Thomas, Roland Freeman, Todd Gray, Chester Higgins, Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, Deborah Jack, Jeffrey Scales, Coreen Simpson, Lorna Simpson, Elisabeth Sunday, Christian Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Carla Williams, and Pat Ward Williams.
Many of the photographers working in the early twenty-first century explore social issues that reflect or respond to politics, culture, family, and collective history. The issues addressed in contemporary photography create a revised interpretation of the visual experience through digital technology, using genres including portraiture, landscape, and documentary photography.
Coar, Valencia Hollins. A Century of Black Photographers: 1840–1960. Providence: Rhode Island School of Design, 1983.
Crawford, Joe. The Black Photographers Annual, 4 vols. New York: Author, 1972–1980.
DeCarava, Roy, and Langston Hughes. The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955). Reprint, Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1984.
Parks, Gordon. A Choice of Weapons. New York: Harper, 1966.
Parks, Gordon. Born Black. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1971.
Parks, Gordon. Moments Without Proper Names. New York: Viking, 1975.
Willis-Thomas, Deborah. Black Photographers, 1840–1940: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1985.
Willis-Thomas, Deborah. Black Photographers, 1940–1988: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography. New York and London: Garland, 1989.
Willis, Deborah, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present. New York: Norton, 2000.
deborah willis (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005