"Black Like Me": Celebrating Black History Month with Photography

February 26, 2017 | Bill V.

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Did you know that African American abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass was the most photographed person in 19th century United States? He knew the power that his image would have as a free Black man who was educated, handsome, well-dressed and sophisticated (i.e., civilized) and equal to any white man. He used the new and evolving technology of photography to promote a specific message. He understood if you control your image you can affect the reality around you, and that the photographic image was not just about self-expression but also power.  

Picturing Frederick Douglass an illustrated biography of the nineteenth century's most photographed American. "Picturing Frederick Douglass is a work that promises to revolutionize our knowledge of race and photography in nineteenth-century America. Teeming with historical detail, it is filled with surprises, chief among them the fact that neither George Custer nor Walt Whitman, and not even Abraham Lincoln, was the most photographed American of that century. In fact, it was Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) the ex-slave turned leading abolitionist, eloquent orator, and seminal writer whose fiery speeches transformed him into one of the most renowned and popular agitators of his age,"--

 

From the same time period you may also be interested in looking at:

 

Envisioning emancipation Black Americans and the end of slavery: The Emancipation Proclamation is one of the most important documents in American history. As we commemorate its 150th anniversary, what do we really know about those who experienced slavery?In their pioneering book, Envisioning Emancipation, renowned photographic historian Deborah Willis and historian of slavery Barbara Krauthamer have amassed 150 photographs--some never before published--from the antebellum days of the 1850s through the New Deal era of the 1930s. The authors vividly display the seismic impact of emancipation on African Americans born before and after the Proclamation, providing a perspective on freedom and slavery and a way to understand the photos as documents of engagement, action, struggle, and aspiration.Envisioning Emancipation illustrates what freedom looked like for black Americans in the Civil War era. From photos of the enslaved on plantations and African American soldiers and camp workers in the Union Army to Juneteenth celebrations, slave reunions, and portraits of black families and workers in the American South, the images in this book challenge perceptions of slavery. They show not only what the subjects emphasized about themselves but also the ways Americans of all colors and genders opposed slavery and marked its end.Filled with powerful images of lives too often ignored or erased from historical records, Envisioning Emancipation provides a new perspective on American culture  African American faces of the Civil War an album: A renowned collector of Civil War photographs and a prodigious researcher, Ronald S. Coddington combines compelling archival images with biographical stories that reveal the human side of the war. This third volume in his series on Civil War soldiers contains previously unpublished photographs of African American Civil War participants-many of whom fought to secure their freedom.

I try to be sensitive in writing for the Library around not appropriating the voice of others. In an earlier blog post about the Black Panthers I placed a special emphasis on autobiography and interviews. In researching this blog I also became more sensitive to image appropriation. Self-expression and self-determination through image are as important as voice. Frederick Douglass had the power to control the production and distribution of his own image. For many Blacks, they could not control who took their photo or how it was distributed. But over time this changed and Blacks increasingly started photographing themselves, commissioning their own portraits and controlling more of their own image. For this year's Black History Month I wanted to explore some photography of and by the Black community.  

   

Reflections In Black A History Of Black Photographers 1840 To The Present: Reflections in Black, the first comprehensive history of black photographers, is Deborah Willis's long-awaited, groundbreaking assemblage of photographs of African American life from 1840 to the present. Willis, a curator of photography at the Smithsonian Institution, has selected nearly 600 stunning images that give us rich, hugely moving glimpses of black life, from slavery to the Great Migrations, from rare antebellum portraits to 1990s middle-class families. Featuring the work of undisputed masters such as James Presley Ball, C. M. Battey, James VanDerZee, Morgan and Marvin Smith, Gordon Parks, Moneta Sleet, Jr., and Carrie Mae Weems, among hundreds of others, Reflections in Black is, most powerfully, a refutation of the gross caricature of the many mainstream photographers who have continually emphasized poverty over family, despair over hope. Recalling Roman Vishniac's Vanished World in terms of its documentary importance, and Brian Lanker's I Dream a World in terms of its exceptional beauty, Reflections in Black is not only an exceptional gift book for any occasion but also a work so significant that it has the power to reconfigure our conception of American history itself. It demands to be included in every American family's library as the record of an essential part of our heritage. Publication will coincide and tie in with a major exhibition at The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC,

Deborah Willis' Reflections in Black: a History of Black Photographers,1840 to the Present, published in 2000, was a ground breaking compilation of research bringing together the first history of African American photography and a unique view into their lives, reality and aspiration over time. It inspired a documentary Through a Lens Darkly. 

Through a Lens Darkly DVD: Inspired by Deborah Willis's book, Reflections in Black, Through a Lens Darkly, casts a broad net that begins with filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris's family album. It considers the difference between black photographers who use the camera to define themselves, their people, and their culture and some white photographers who, historically, have demeaned African-Americans through racist imagery. The film embraces both historical material (African-Americans who were slaves, who fought in the Civil War, were victims of lynchings, or were pivotal in the Civil Rights Movement) and contemporary images made by such luminaries as Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks, and Carrie Mae Weems. 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 artists and amateurs alike to assert their identity through the photographic lens.

With the growth of interest in black photography came the desire to collect and start studying the material. African American Vernacular Photography is a selection of works from the Daniel Cowin Collection (housed at the International Center of Photography). To quote from their website:

  • There is little public documentation about the private lives of African Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when their social transactions took place for the most part outside of public view and often away from the camera's lens. This exhibition offers a glimpse into the rarely presented everyday lives of African Americans through a variety of photographic genres and poses: formal studio portraits, casual snapshots, images of children, images of uniformed soldiers, wedding portraits, and "Southern-views" that were made for tourist consumption. While some of the sitters were celebrities of the day, the majority of subjects are unnamed Americans. The images attest to photography's ability to record personal histories for private uses and to create historical documents.

African American vernacular photography selections from the Daniel Cowin Collection: These selections from the Daniel Cowin Collection make up an extraordinary group of images of African Americans in a variety of genres and poses, including formal studio portraits, casual snapshots, images of children, images of uniformed soldiers, wedding portraits and so-called "Southern-views" made for tourist consumption, all dating from 1860 to 1960. While some of the sitters are celebrities of their day, the majority are unnamed Americans posing for their portrait. They attest to photography's ability to both record personal history for private uses and to become a document--to document history in a wider context. The Daniel Cowin Collection, given to ICP in 1990 by its namesake, is made up of about 1600 photographs spanning from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth, and spanning that era's range of commercial processes and formats--from postcards to stereographs, cartes-de-visite, tintypes, albumen prints and gelatin silver prints. Together they provide an important window into African American life during the period. African American Vernacular Photography reproduces 70 of Cowin's most exceptional color plates with essays by Brian Wallis, Director of Exhibitions and Chief Curator at the International Center of Photography, and Deborah Willis, MacArthur Fellow and author of Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present and, with Carla Williams, The Black Female Body: A Photographic History.

Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits is along the same vein as the titles above but it pulls from the US National Portrait Gallery. This is the published catalogue for an exhibition put on by the Smithsonian which explored "the span of a century and a half of both the photographic medium and the history of the United States as seen through an African American lens".  

TLet Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits:his stunning collection of photographic portraits traces US history through the lives of well-known abolitionists, artists, scientists, writers, statesman, entertainers, and sports figures. Drawing on the photographic collections of the National Portrait Gallery, author Deborah Willis explores how these images—many by famous photographers—reveal the nation's history through an African American lens and challenge us all to uphold America's highest ideals and promises. Let Your Motto Be Resistance is the inaugural publication of the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture.
 

Deborah Wallis and Carla Good expanded the research and history of Blacks in photography and this lead to The Black Female Body: A Photographic History. They do an excellent job moving from earlier anthropological, sexualized and stereotypical types of photographs to more everyday images that more accurately reflect the sitters' realities. You may also be interested in Viewfinders: black women photographers which is a survey of black women photographers from the 19th century to the present day.

The black female body a photographic history:  Searching for photographic images of black women, Deborah Willis and Carla Williams were startled to find them by the hundreds. In long-forgotten books, in art museums, in European and U.S. archives and private collections, a hidden history of representation awaited discovery. The Black Female Body offers a stunning array of familiar and many virtually unknown photographs, showing how photographs reflected and reinforced Western culture's fascination with black women's bodies.  In the nineteenth century, black women were rarely subjects for artistic studies but posed before the camera again and again as objects for social scientific investigation and as exotic representatives of faraway lands. South Africans, Nubians, enslaved Abyssinians and Americans, often partially or completely naked and devoid of identity, were displayed for the armchair anthropologist or prurient viewer. Willis and Williams relate these social science photographs and the blatantly pornographic images of this era with those of black women as domestics and as nursemaids for white children in family portraits. As seen through the camera lens, Jezebel and Mammy took the form of real women made available to serve white society.  Bringing together some 185 images that span three centuries, the authors offer counterpoints to these exploitive images, as well as testaments to a vibrant culture. Here are nineteenth century portraits of well-dressed and beautifully coifed creoles of color and artistic studies of dignified black women. Here are Harlem Renaissance photographs of entertainer Josephine Baker and writer Zora Neale Hurston. Documenting the long struggle for black civil rights, the authors draw on politically pointed images by noted photographers like Dorothea Lange, Lewis Hine, and Gordon Parks. They also feature the work of contemporary artists such as Ming Smith Murray, Renee Cox, Coreen Simpson, Chester Higgins, Joy Gregory, and Catherine Opie, who photograph black women asserting their subjectivity, reclaiming their bodies, and refusing the representations of the past.

Deborah Willis has created a real expertise in this subject and has co-edited or written a number of other books on the history of Blacks in photography including: 

 

The idea of Black beauty has been explored by both Deborah Willis and also Ben Arogundade in:

  Black beauty a history and a celebration: Through over 150 color and black and white photographs and an engaging, informed text Black Beauty discusses the position of blacks within the beauty hierarchy of the West, as well as the kinds of work available to black models within the past century. Author Ben Arogundade also offers insight to the ways in which certain styles of black beauty have been promoted above others. In considering black icons and celebrities from Marcus Garvey, Josephine Baker, and Muhammad Ali to Billy Dee Williams, Grace Jones and Lauryn Hill, Black Beauty reveals the many differing images of those who have embodied black beauty in our culture. Portraits by Herb Ritts, Albert Watson, Richard Avedon, and other eminent photographers are included in this stunning compilation.  Posing beauty African American images, from the 1890s to the present: As a student in the 1970s, Deborah Willis came to the realization that images of black beauty, female and male, simply did not exist in the larger culture. Determined to redress this imbalance, Willis examined everything from vintage ladies’ journals to black newspapers, and started what would become a lifelong quest. With more than two hundred arresting images, many previously unpublished, Posing Beauty recovers a world many never knew existed. Historical subjects such as Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker illuminate the past; Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali take us to the civil rights era; Denzel Washington, Lil’ Kim, and Michelle Obama celebrate the present. Featuring the works of more than one hundred photographers, including Carl van Vechten, Eve Arnold, Lee Friedlander, and Carrie Mae Weems, Willis’s book not only celebrates the lives of the famous but also captures the barber shop, the bodybuilding contest, and prom night. Posing Beauty challenges our most fundamental assumptions about what it means to be “beautiful.”

 

You may also be interested in the self-portraits of Mickalene Thomas (they remind me of Cindy Sherman) who studied under David Hilliard.

Muse Mickalene Thomas Photographs:Mickalene Thomas, known for her large-scale, multitextured and rhinestone-encrusted paintings of domestic interiors and portraits, identifies the photographic image as a defining touchstone for her practice. Thomas began to photograph herself and her mother as a student at Yale, studying under David Hilliard--a pivotal experience for her as an artist. This volume is the first to gather together her various approaches to photography, including portraits, collages, Polaroids and other processes. The work is a personal act of deconstruction and reappropriation. Working primarily in her studio, Thomas' portraits draw equally from memories of her mother, 1970s black-is-beautiful images of women such as supermodel Beverly Johnson and actress Vonetta McGee, Edouard Manet's odalisque figures and the mise-en-scene studio portraiture of James Van Der Zee and Malick Sidibe. The interior space of her studio, a reappearing character in many of her photographs and paintings, frequently takes on as much of a performative role as her models do. The space exudes a thick, cozy physicality from its layers of fur, rugs, wood paneling and multipatterned linoleum tiles--all of which are richly laden with sensory triggers of a 1970s American rumpus room.

I don't want to leave men out of the contemporary photography pool. Vital Grace: The Black Male Dancer is a beautiful oversize book of photography. There are interesting interviews and essays with Black male dancers talking about race, masculinity and the tension between traditional ballet and modern dance. More broadly it explores the impetus to dance among these men. More sexually explicit (possibly even notorious) is Robert Mapplethorpe's Black Book of male nudes.

Vital Grace The Black Male Dancer: Affirming the vital power of male dance, this collection of portraits by Joanne Savio, choreographed by Duane Cyrus, focuses on aspects often disregarded in views of the classical male dancer.  Dance is a vital part of most cultures. History is passed down, courting is done, and people are healed through dance ceremonies in which men take part. Much of this tradition has been lost in Western culture. And there are many misconceptions about the male dancer. His strength and discipline are too often disregarded, lost in the folds of cultural and gender cliches, The artistic vision of Vital Grace is to inspire the viewer to appreciate the classic athletic agility of the male dancer. His mental discipline and physical strength are indeed masculine and lie at the very core of his art.

On a more everyday level there are also Father Figure: Exploring Alternate Notions of Black Fatherhood and also Pop: a Celebration of Black Fatherhood.

Father figure exploring alternate notions of black fatherhood: Widely hailed as a landmark project, Zun Lee's monograph is at once documentary photography and personal visual storytelling. Through intimate black-and-white frames, 'Father Figure: Exploring Alternate Notions of Black Fatherhood' provides insight into often-overlooked aspects of African-descended family life.The reader gains an intimate view into the daily lives of black men whom Lee has worked with since 2011 and who are parenting under a variety of circumstances - as married fathers, single fathers, social fathers, young and older, middle class and poorer. Lee brings into focus what pervasive father absence stereotypes have distorted - real fathers who are involved in their children's lives. Men who may not be perfect but are not media caricatures. Zun Lee's journey of fatherlessness and identity formation informs his insider perspective and photographic approach. Using his own biography as inspiration, Lee is able to access a complex subject matter with profound vulnerability and compassion, creating a richly woven narrative that is deceptively simple yet multi-dimensional and above all, deeply humanistic. Flanked by writer and photographer Teju Cole's empathetic foreword and by an impassioned afterword courtesy of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Trymaine Lee, this work exposes the viewer to aspects of black male identity that many have not seen, or perhaps do not want to see. It shows these men not as victims of their circumstances but as empowered agents in their own lives, as capable parents, and above all as loving, wholesome human beings.

 

Another example of contemporary photography that highlights the African American community is Detroit Unbroken Down. It looks at the myth of Detroit as an abandoned wasteland and focuses on the people (predominantly African American) who are still there. Many other American cities have hidden archives of African American photography including The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise or Charles H. Teenie Harris' Pittsburgh Courier newspaper photographs of the 1930s-1970s. There is also Picturing Black New Orleans: a Creole Photographer's View of the Early Twentieth Century.

Detroit Unbroken Now: Dave Jordano returned to his hometown of Detroit to document the people who still live in what has become one of the country’s most economically challenging cities. Stricken with mass abandonment through years of white flight to the suburbs, unemployment hovering at almost three times the national average, city services cut to the bone, a real estate collapse of massive proportions that stripped the tax base bare, and ultimately filing the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, Jordano searches for the hope and perseverance of those who have had to endure the hardship of living in a post-industrial city that has fallen on the hardest of times.

It's interesting to look at the Detroit book and then look at some of the visual histories of Harlem which went through a period of abandonment but has also more recently had significant recovery.  

Harlem the unmaking of a ghetto: For more than a century, Harlem has been the epicenter of black America, the celebrated heart of African American life and culture--but it has also been a byword for the problems that have long plagued inner-city neighborhoods: poverty, crime, violence, disinvestment, and decay.

Harlem looms large in the American consciousness:

 

There is a deep African American visual legacy that awaits your discovery.

Black: A Celebration of a Culture presents a vibrant panorama of twentieth-century black culture in America and around the world. Broken up into segments that examine in detail such subjects as children, work, art, beauty, Saturday night, and Sunday morning, the photos detail the history and the evolution of a culture. Each photograph, handpicked by Deborah Willis, America’s leading historian of African American photography, celebrates the world of music, art, fashion, sports, family, worship, or play. With five hundred photographs from every time period from the birth of photography to the birth of hip-hop, this book is a truly joyous exhibition of black culture.

There's also a rich legacy of photographs around the Civil Rights Movement, both deeply sad and disturbing but ultimately uplifting. There is also Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle.

The Georgia State University Library has written a blog called Black History Month: Visualizing Black History which is an excellent, in-depth overview with many links to "significant online sources for photographs and images relating to African-American history". I highly recommend their blog post and the research and care that went into its writing.

 

Mine eyes have seen bearing witness to the struggle for Civil Rights

 

The civil rights movement a photographic history, 1954-68:With a striking selection of images and a lively, informative text, Steven Kasher captures the danger, drama, and bravery of the civil rights movement. After an introduction explaining the significance of photography to the movement, the text in this important book proceeds from the Montgomery bus boycott through the students, local, and national movements; the big marches; Freedom summer; Malcolm X; and the death of Martin Luther King.

Freedom now!: Forgotten photographs of the civil rights struggle: Photographers shot millions of pictures of the black civil rights struggle between the close of World War II and the early 1970s, yet most Americans today can recall just a handful of images that look remarkably similar. In the popular imagination, the civil rights movement is remembered in dramatic photographs of protestors attacked with police dogs and fire hoses, firebombs and shotguns, tear gas and billy clubs. The most famous images of the era show black activists victimized by violent Southern whites.

 

And no discussion of mid-century African American photography can omit Gordon Parks, the first Black photographer hired by Life magazine. His photographs of the Fontenelle family from Harlem, whose lives Parks documented as part of a 1968 Life magazine photo essay, are especially moving.

  Gordon Parks segregation story
 

This is not solely a historical journey though - there is much being done to document current life.

Carrie Mae Weems Kitchen Table Series: 'Kitchen Table Series' is the first publication dedicated solely to this early and important body of work by the American artist Carrie Mae Weems. The 20 photographs and 14 text panels that make up the artwork tell a story of one woman’s life, as conducted in the intimate setting of her kitchen. The kitchen, one of the primary spaces of domesticity and the traditional domain of women, frames her story, revealing to us her relationships--with lovers, children, friends--and her own sense of self, in her varying projections of strength, vulnerability, aloofness, tenderness, and solitude. 'Kitchen Table Series' seeks to reposition and reimagine the possibility of women and the possibility of people of color, and has to do with, in the artist’s words “unrequited love.""

 

Including the vibrant gay Black and Hispanic house and drag ballroom scene: 

Legendary inside the house ballroom scene: Gerard H. Gaskin's radiant color and black-and-white photographs take us inside the culture of house balls, underground events where gay and transgender men and women, mostly African American and Latino, come together to see and be seen. At balls, high-spirited late-night pageants, members of particular "houses"--the House of Blahnik, the House of Xtravaganza--"walk," competing for trophies in categories based on costume, attitude, dance moves, and "realness." In this exuberant world of artistry and self-fashioning, people often marginalized for being who they are can flaunt and celebrate their most vibrant, spectacular selves.

I wanted to expand to some Caribbean photography. The hurricane that hit Haiti brought about a strong response from Canadians and Tent Life: Haiti explores life afterwards.

 

Tent life Haiti: On January 12, 2010, Gallery was on assignment in Curaçao when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti. He returned in September, to continue photographing the heartbreaking living situations within the massive tent cities turned makeshift shantytowns, as well as the spirit of strength, hope, and resilience displayed by the people of Haiti.

90° degrees of shade image and identity in the West Indies:The image of the Caribbean is as much a creation of the West as it is the result of its population's incredibly complex identity. A melting pot of races born of the 400-year slave trade--Africans, indigenous Americans and their French, Spanish, German, Dutch and English colonizers--the identity of the Caribbean stands at the intersection of tourism, colonialism and tropicality. This deluxe large-format volume features hundreds of fascinating and unique photographs that span 100 years of Caribbean history, culture, industry and more, as well as the subsequent diaspora of its people to America, England and elsewhere. The photographs show the many ways in which the region has been portrayed, from tropical backdrop of tourism and hedonism to colonial outpost and revolutionary threat in North America's own backyard. The introduction is by Paul Gilroy, author of The Black Atlantic, There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack and Black Britain: A Photographic History (2004), among others.


And lastly, from Africa you will find a diverse selection of mainly contemporary photography. 

Photography and Africa: A land comprising more than fifty nations and innumerable cultural and geographic variations, from harsh desert to lush jungle, Africa has long been a favorite subject for photographers.  Since the advent of the medium in the first half of the nineteenth century, a myriad of photographers—both indigenous and immigrant, amateur and professional, explorer and colonist, naturalist and artist—have recorded intrepid expeditions, documented flora and fauna, and chronicled the transformations of the cultural landscape.  Portraiture and Photography in Africa: Beautifully illustrated, Portrait Photography in Africa offers new interpretations of the cultural and historical roles of photography in Africa. Twelve leading scholars look at early photographs, important photographers' studios, the uses of portraiture in the 19th century, and the current passion for portraits in Africa. They review a variety of topics, including what defines a common culture of photography, the social and political implications of changing technologies for portraiture, and the lasting effects of culture on the idea of the person depicted in the photographic image. 

 

A Useful Dream African Photography 1960-2010: Photography has proved a particularly essential art in the African continent's postcolonial era, both for recording the numerous seismic moments in its recent history, and for reclaiming the imagery of Africa from its colonial portrayers. As Africa has begun to step beyond its colonial subjugation, photography has also assumed a leading role in providing African countries with individual identities. Tracking the blossoming of postcolonial photography in Africa from 1960 to the present, and accompanying an exhibition at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, A Useful Dream: African Photography 1960-2010 celebrates 50 years of African photography. Among the 34 photographers gathered in its pages are Rui Assubuji, Nabil Boutros, Loulou Cherinet, James Depara, Samuel Fosso, David Goldblatt, Bob Gosani, Pierrot Men, Zwelethu Mtethwa, Eileen Perrier, Ricardo Rangel, Malick Sidibé and Patrice-Félix Tchikaya. The volume includes an introduction by Simon Njami and a text by Frank Vanhaecke.

Pieter Hugo this must be the place: Pieter Hugo has been documenting his native continent of Africa since his late teens. This retrospective volume collects photographs from each of his earlier series, as well as portraits and landscapes that have never been shown or published before.

   Snap judgments new positions in contemporary African photography: "Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography" gathers approximately 250 works by 30 artists from across the continent, an amazingly wide range of individual artistic responses to the unprecedented shifts taking place in Africa's economic, social and cultural spheres. In addition to introducing audiences to the multiple imaginations and voices of today's African artists, "Snap Judgments" explores the ways photo-based art has developed across the dialectic of traditional African aesthetic values and Western influences. Contemporary African photography has emerged in the post-World War II de-colonization movements, the quest for independent national identity, and the effects of globalization and modernity. "Snap Judgments" organizes the work that grew out of all that into four thematic groups--landscape; urban formations; the body and identity; and history and representation--groups that reflect the issues around which Africa's experimental artists have been articulating new styles and visual languages. Nigerian independent curator and art historian Okwui Enwezor, widely recognized as one of the world's foremost experts on contemporary African art, has included an essay by art historian Colin Richard, an appendix on recent exhibitions of African photography, biographical notes on the artists, and a general bibliography.   Africa under the prism contemporary African photography from LagosPhoto Festival: This publication documents the first international art festival of photography in Nigeria--the Lagos Photo Festival, initiated in 2010. The festival serves as a platform for the fostering and establishment of contemporary photography in Africa, as well as within a wider, international community.

From Mali in western Africa the photographer Malick Sidibé has some amazing work starting in the 1960s:

   Malick Sidibé la vie en rose: Acclaimed for his black-and-white photographs of 1960s youth culture in Bamako, Mali, Malick Sidibe (born 1936) is today the African continent's best-known photographer. Sidibe was recently awarded the Venice Biennale Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement (2007)--the first time this award was presented to a photographer--and the Infinity Award for Lifetime Achievement (2008), in recognition of his contribution to documentary photography and the historical record. Malick Sidibe La Vie en Rose provides a survey of this work, focusing primarily on Sidibe's images of Mali's buzzing youth culture and family life in Bamako in the 1960s and 70s. Laura Serani's foreword contextualizes Sidibe's work in a wider survey of African photography; the book also includes an interview with the photographer by Laura Incardona and an appendix with Sidibe's famous "chemises" (photographic dossiers), which documents his working methods.   Malick Sidibé the portrait of Mali:A new monograph on the finest African photographer recognized as "the living memory of Mali". Born in 1936 at Soloba, in the Yanfolila Cercle, Mali, Malick Sidibé is now an internationally recognized artist and is considered the greatest African photographer. In 1962, just after Mali proclaimed its independence, Sidibé opened his studio in Bamako, devoting himself to reportage and documentary photography. His famous black and white images portray youth culture and dance evenings in the Malian capital. During the '70s he turned to highly studied studio portraits which appeared, nonetheless, extremely spontaneous and fresh. Since 1999, his work has been marked by a particularly poetic approach to portraying people from behind, managing to convey their character despite such an unusual perspective.

 

From Nigeria, one of the economic powerhouses of Africa we see have a couple of interesting photographic books that look at the oil industry as well as the markets and merchants of Nairobi. For something that looks at historic photography you may be interested in Fragile Legacies: The Photographs of Solomon Osagie Alonge, Nigeria's Premier Photographer showcasing the fascinating photographs of Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge (1911-1994), Nigeria's premier twentieth-century photographer and the first official photographer to the Royal Court of the Kingdom of Benin.

  Curse of the black gold 50 years of oil in the Niger Delta: A graphic look at the profound cost of oil exploitation in West Africa. World-renowned photo-journalist Ed Kashi traces 50 years of interest in Nigerian oil and the resulting degradation and community conflicts that have plagued the region. This is the first book to document what has been called the scramble for African oil'. Kashi exposes the reality of oil's impact, providing a a compelling pictorial history of one of the world's great deltaic areas.

 

  Trading Places The Merchants Of Nairobi: In Nairobi, slick advertising has made few inroads, and shopping malls and supermarkets remain a rarity. People buy their daily necessities locally, from small traders within their communities. Business owners paint their own billboards and signs, or call in friends who happen to be handy with a paintbrush. The results are delightfully quirky—an authentic form of popular street graphics that is endlessly fascinating.“Beauty is your birthright” proclaims the Eclipse Hair Salon. The Enlightened Electricals store features paintings of bulbs, switches, sockets, and plugs. More than one shack hotel sports the name “Hotel Hilton,” while elsewhere “Joy Hotel” is scrawled in white paint across corrugated metal panels.

“Ghetto life is not easy” says the facade of the Abdalla Store. Indeed not: these are people for whom the threat of hunger is never far away, and money is a constant preoccupation. Yet in poignant and frank interviews with Steve Bloom, Kenyans display extraordinary generosity: their priorities are faith, family, love, community, and helping others.

Moving to the east coast of Africa Ethiopie by Jean-Baptiste Huynh is a striking book of portraits.

Ethiopie:Ethiopie is a photographic chronicle of Jean-Baptiste Huynh's journey through Ethiopia. He involves us in his encounters that bear witness to ethnic and religious diversity as well as to the intensity of being. The faces: orthodox, Muslim, of forgotten tribes, unveil untainted beauty through the elegance of features and the emotion of gazes.

 

South Africa and the apartheid regime have proved a rich, sad, but positive hopeful cache of photographs as well.

Rise and Fall of Apartheid Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life:Featuring some of the most iconic images of our time, this unique combination of photojournalism and commentary offers a probing and comprehensive exploration of the birth, evolution, and demise of apartheid in South Africa. Photographers played an important role in the documentation of apartheid, capturing the system's penetration of even the most mundane aspects of life in South Africa. Included in this vivid and compelling volume are works by photographers such as Eli Weinberg, Alf Khumalo, David Goldblatt, Peter Magubane, Ian Berry, and many others. Organized chronologically, it interweaves images and essays exploring the institutionalization of apartheid through the country's legal apparatus; the growing resistance in the 1950s; and the radicalization of the anti-apartheid movement within South Africa and, later, throughout the world. Finally, the book investigates the fall of apartheid, including Mandela's return from exile. Far-reaching and exhaustively researched, this important book features more than 60 years of powerful photographic material that forms part of the historical record of South Africa

 

  Defiant images photography and apartheid South Africa:Photography is often believed to witness history or reflect society, but such perspectives fail to account for the complex ways in which photographs get made and seen, and the variety of motivations and social and political factors that shape the vision of the world that photographs provide. This book develops a critical historical method for engaging with photographs of South Africa during the apartheid period. The author looks closely at the photographs in their original contexts and their relationship to the politics of the time, listens to the voices of the photographers to try and understand how they viewed the work they were doing, and examines the place of photography in a postapartheid era. Based on interviews with photographers, editors and curators, and through the analysis of photographs held in collections and displayed in museums, this research addresses the significance of photography in South Africa during the second half of the twentieth century"--  Living apart South Africa under apartheid:In the post-war period, the South African government gradually developed a policy that was meant to retain forever the rights and privileges of a white minority: apartheid. Racial prejudices and tensions may create difficulties in many societies, but only in South Africa was segregation actually institutionalized and regulated.


In terms of Canadian material there is much less that is purely photographic in nature. Toronto Public Library has a virtual exhibit called Freedom City: Uncovering Toronto's Black History that has many interesting photographs, ephemera and detailed historical explanations. I wrote a blog post called Bob Marley's Redemption Song: The Canadian Connection which has a good summary of Nova Scotian Black Canadian books. Readers may also be interested in the following titles:

 

I want to wrap up with an explanation around the title of this blog post "Black Like Me". Firstly I am not Black but do you know the photo of President Obama bending over so a young Black boy can touch his hair? The boy is the son of a former White House staffer (traditionally staff have their photo taken with the president upon leaving their jobs). Jacob wanted to see if the President's hair felt like his and afterwards Jacob said the President's hair did feel the same as his own ... i.e "Black like me". It's a powerful and iconic photo for lots of other reasons (how humble is Obama in bowing before a young boy?) but race certainly plays into its power. That's one impetus that got me thinking of a blog post about photography and this specific title.

Copyright Pete Souza the White House

Jacob Philadelphia touches President Obama's hair - photo copyright by Pete Souza / White House

I remember as a gay teenager secretly reading my first gay novel (from the Richmond Hill Public Library by the way) and the "aha" moment when I found a character who was like me. I hope that Black readers of this blog, who may look at one of these photography books in person may also have an "aha" moment. A moment like Jacob had. I hope readers will see a book that shows people over time and in different places who are "Black like me".

While writing this blog post I had a selection of the books on a public information desk and a young Black man came up to ask me a music question and saw some of the covers and asked what I was doing. I explained I was writing a blog post on Black photography for Black History Month in February. He started looking through some of the historical books and was really interested - so much so he took one away to read. But he also asked if we had any books on photography from Western Africa. So I showed him the Trading Places The Merchants of Nairobi ... but this didn't interest him. He asked if we had any photographic books about Ghana (where his family was from). I did a search and ended up showing him Gold of the Akan from the Glassell collection. This really pleased him as it wasn't just artifacts but actually photos of people wearing and using them and he ended up reading this one in the library too. He had an "aha" moment with these two books.

Black Like Me is also the name of a well known and influential 1961 memoir by John Howard Griffin, a white man, who medically darkened his skin and spent one month passing as a black man in the segregated Deep South United States. He pretended to be black to experience it - he walked in another's shoes. But in the end, he went back to being white. Of course, walking in those shoes for short time is not like being born into them and living in them forever and yet, the book exposed more of the daily racism African Americans experienced to a much wider community.

  Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin: In the Deep South of the 1950's, a color line was etched in blood across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Journalist John Howard Griffin decided to cross that line. Using medication that darkened his skin to deep brown, he exchanged his privileged life as a Southern white man for the disenfranchised world of an unemployed black man.   What happened to John Howard Griffin--from the outside and within himself--as he made his way through the segregated Deep South is recorded in this searing work of nonfiction. His audacious, still chillingly relevant eyewitness history is a work about race and humanity every American must read. 

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