Varied Ground: The Modern African American Experience
Photographs from the Bank of America Collection
“If done well, I believe the photographic representation of the human subject has the potential to be more revealing than what is revealed by the eye alone, since the human glance is usually a momentary one.” ii
– Dawoud Bey
Varied Ground: The Modern African American Experience presents photographs that explore the past eight decades of African American photography. These images, created by African American photojournalists, documentary photographers and fine artists between 1928 and 2003, invite viewers into the lives of African Americans from across the United States. While these photographs tell the stories of a people during a period of unprecedented social change, they also provide an overview of American photography.
Varied Ground is divided into five sections – The Familiar, The Portrait, Music, Change and Events – and includes works by fourteen leading African American artists: Henry Clay Anderson, Dawoud Bey, Roy DeCarava, Lyle Ashton Harris, Earlie Hudnall, Jr., Rashid Johnson, Ozier Muhammad, Gordon Parks, Robert A. Sengstacke, Jamel Shabazz, Chuck Stewart, James VanDerZee, Ernest C. Withers and Carrie Mae Weems.
The photographs in Varied Ground explore diverse facets of the African American experience, from the dynamics of everyday family life to periods of significant historical change. In addition to documenting the transitions that African Americans have witnessed, celebrated and endured, Varied Ground sheds light on the commonalities and shared experiences that are part of life in America. At the same time, it celebrates the diversity that has made this nation unique among societies in the world.
“You know, the camera is not meant just to show misery. You can show beauty with it; you can do a lot of things. You can show – with a camera you can show things that you like about the universe, things that you hate about the universe. It’s capable of doing both.” iii
– Gordon Parks
The photographs in this section reflect moments in everyday life. The stories that the artists capture are immediately recognizable and speak to the commonplace experiences shared by African Americans. Whether the image depicts children positioned uncomfortably for a family photo or friends posing together on the beach, we feel a sense of kinship with the people in these timeless photographs.
Featured in this section are two images from Dawoud Bey’s iconic Harlem, U.S.A. series from 1979. Bey, who grew up in Queens, New York, was fascinated by his family’s history in Harlem and inspired by the photographs of James VanDerZee (also on view in this section), which date from the 1920s. In 1975, Bey began taking weekly trips to Harlem to reacquaint himself with the neighborhood and the people he remembered from childhood trips to the area. The photographs he took during these outings document this historic neighborhood and the people who lived there in the late 1970s.
“I never feel sorry for any of my subjects. I’ve always had respect for the individual, no matter who they were. Wherever I’ve been able to travel I’ve met people, and in every community there are so many similarities that we can find…and that is so wonderful.” iv
– Earlie Hudnall, Jr.
A portrait allows for an intimate look at an individual at a particular moment. Portraits convey far more than the simple likeness of the sitter; they can capture the person’s mood, spirit or personality. These images reveal the connection between the subject and the photographer, established through both eye contact and interaction with the camera. Likewise, the viewer is drawn into an intimate union with the image, the subject and the photographer – a union that communicates across space and time and that transcends personal experience.
Among the works in this section are photographs by Earlie Hudnall, Jr., Dawoud Bey and Carrie Mae Weems. Earlie Hudnall, Jr., has been widely praised for his ability to capture the emotion in a seemingly mundane moment and transform these images into universal icons. Hip Hop, 1993, and The Wood Chopper, 1986, are portraits of ordinary people from profoundly different backgrounds, yet who have much in common. Dawoud Bey’s A Woman Waiting in the Doorway, 1976, from Harlem, U.S.A., 1979, displays his ability to capture the human soul in a fleeting instant. Carrie Mae Weems’ Untitled (Woman with daughter), 1990, from Kitchen Table Series, is a carefully posed tableau that focuses on family and domestic space.
Together, along with the other photographs in this section, these portraits draw us in – they encourage us to connect, to relate not only with the image but also with the photographer. The narrative in the photographs unites us all in the larger human story.
“It was during a break at Birdland when the band was playing there sometime in the 1950s. Al Grey, whose chair was off to one side, had left the bandstand. The club was a small one and I had taken his seat to carry on a conversation. I had gotten so carried away in the conversation that I didn’t realize the band was back onstage, and Al Grey was usually late in getting back. Finally, Basie looked up and saw me and said, ‘What do you play?’ ‘I play the camera, Mr. Basie,’ (and Basie replied) ‘Get the hell outta my band.’” v
– Chuck Stewart
Music has always played a significant role in African American culture. In a society in which highly regarded musicians can often achieve celebrity status, we seek out glimpses into their private lives and opportunities to observe them during quiet moments. Photographers have brought us closer to music’s greats. Chuck Stewart, for example, has photographed hundreds of musicians during his career. Whether his subjects were on stage or off when the photograph was taken, Stewart’s indelible images help the music live on even after the performers are gone.
Also included in this exhibition is work by Gordon Parks, who got his start as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration. Parks would go on to be one of the preeminent photojournalists of his time, as well as a well-known filmmaker, musician and writer, and would photograph subjects ranging from street gangs to movie stars and musicians. Featured in this exhibition is his 1993 photograph of a young cellist and his companion, Music – That Lordly Power.
“I look for things of time and value. None of my images deal in violence – they deal in time.” vi
– Ernest C. Withers
The 1960s were time of social upheaval in the United States. In the one hundred years after slavery ended, African Americans still struggled for equality. During the 1960s, much of that struggle came to a head, thanks to the brave men and women of the Civil Rights Movement. Significant changes – both in law and in daily life – would have profound effects on society that reverberate to this day. From marches and sit-ins to the desegregation of schools and bitter legislative battles, photographers like Ernest C. Withers, Henry Clay Anderson and Robert A. Sengstacke were there to record the moments of the movement.
These photographers introduced a new standard in documentary photography. They showed all sides of the Civil Rights Movement and helped to present a true picture of African Americans, rather than caricatures as too often had been depicted in newspapers.
“A photographer understands that pictures will show what is in the person…. [M]aking pictures is a lot like telling a story.” vii
– Henry Clay Anderson
“Sometimes the photographs seemed to be more valuable to me than they did to the people I was photographing because I put my heart and soul into them.” xi
– James VanDerZee
From concerts to beauty pageants, to sporting events and services of worship, our lives consist of moments in which we gather with friends and family to laugh, to celebrate and, at times, to cry.
During the 1920s and 1930s, James VanDerZee chronicled the Harlem Renaissance and continued photographing Harlemites for decades to come. Although noted for his pioneering depictions of middle-class African Americans, VanDerZee photographed people from all walks of life. Atlantic City, 1930, captures a side of America rarely seen at the time.
From the late 1940s to the 1970s, Henry Clay Anderson documented the African American community in Greenville, Mississippi. His photographs include portraits, weddings, funerals, baseball games, and school proms and homecomings. A Beauty Pageant, c. 1960, portrays African American women strutting down asphalt in segregated Mississippi just as if they were national contestants appearing on live television.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Ernest C. Withers traveled throughout the South with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Meredith, Medgar Evers and other prominent leaders of the Civil Rights movement. His images provided stories, including Dr. King riding the first desegregated bus in Montgomery, murders of civil rights workers, lynchings, and the powerful Memphis Sanitation workers strike. He captured an all-encompassing chronicle of the great American crusade of the second half of the twentieth century.
Henry Clay Anderson
Henry Clay Anderson’s photographs explore family and social life in Greenville, Mississippi, where he was born. He established Anderson Photo Service there in 1948 and worked in Greenville until the 1970s recording the daily lives of the men and women who built the Greenville schools, churches and hospitals that served their segregated society. He also photographed family gatherings, sports events, proms and musical performances – and, most important, a wide range of activities related to the Civil Rights Movement.
Anderson’s black-and-white works are a unique treasure. They document the proud, dignified community of middle-class African Americans that existed throughout the South during the Civil Rights Movement. His portraits are a testament to black Southerners who considered themselves first-class citizens despite living in a deeply hostile America.
New York filmmaker Shawn Wilson, also from Greenville, teamed up with photography collector and dealer Charles Schwartz to preserve, organize and present the thousands of prints and negatives in Anderson’s archive. In 2002, they organized the publication of the book Separate But Equal: The Mississippi Photographs of Henry Clay Anderson. Anderson’s photographs were displayed at the Steven Kasher Gallery, New York, in an exhibition with the same title in 2007 and in a traveling exhibition entitled Posing Beauty in African American Culture, 2009.
Dawoud Bey was born in Queens, New York, and began his career as a photographer in 1975 with a series of photographs entitled Harlem, U.S.A. These images were later shown in his first solo exhibition at The Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979. Bey has challenged photographic traditions, specifically by creating series of combined images of families with the large-format Polaroid camera, as well as documenting teenagers and their fashion style.
Since 1992, Bey has completed a number of collaborative projects, working with young people, museums and cultural institutions to broaden the participation of various communities whose voices have often been absent in these institutions.
He has had numerous solo exhibitions worldwide, at such institutions as the Art Institute of Chicago; the Barbican Centre, London; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; the National Portrait Gallery, London; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Class Pictures: Photographs by Dawoud Bey was published by Aperture in 2007. In 2008, he completed Character Project, commissioned by USA Network and published by Chronicle Books in 2009.
In 2012, the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago organized Dawoud Bey: Picturing People, a survey exhibition of his work from 1981 to 2012. Yale University Press published Harlem, U.S.A. in conjunction with the Art Institute of Chicago in May 2012, where the work was exhibited in its entirety for the first time since it was shown at The Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979. Bey recently completed a project with the Birmingham Museum of Art that commemorates the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church fifty years ago, Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project, 2013. He is currently a Distinguished College Artist and Associate Professor of Art at Columbia College Chicago.
Roy DeCarava was born and raised in Harlem, New York, by a single mother. He began working at an early age while also attending school. After two years of study at The Cooper Union School of Art, he decided to leave the university and attend classes at the Harlem Art Center, where he met and befriended poet Langston Hughes as well as artists Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. Two years later, DeCarava would move on again to attend George Washington Carver Art School.
In his early career, DeCarava worked not as a photographer, but as a painter and commercial illustrator. At the time, many still regarded photography as a documentary medium. When DeCarava did turn to photography, it was with the eye of a painter.
In the late 1940s, he began a series of scenes of his native Harlem. Edward Steichen, then curator of photography for The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, attended DeCarava’s first solo exhibition in 1950 and bought several prints for the museum’s collection. In 1952, DeCarava was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, the first African American photographer to receive the grant. Many of the photos enabled by this award were compiled in the book The Sweet Flypaper of Life, 1955, with text written by his long-time friend Langston Hughes.
His interest in education led him to found A Photographer’s Gallery in Harlem, where he sought to emphasize photography as a legitimate form of art. He also founded an African American photographers workshop. DeCarava would go on to teach at The Cooper Union School of Art and Hunter College.
He is perhaps best known for his portraits of jazz musicians, which capture the essence of such legends as Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday in the midst of performances. These portraits, which he began in 1956, were shown in 1983 in an exhibition at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Many of DeCarava’s jazz portraits were published in The Sound I Saw: Improvisation on a Jazz Theme, 2001. In 1996, The Museum of Modern Art organized a DeCarava retrospective that traveled to several cities and introduced his work to a new generation. DeCarava received a National Medal of Arts in 2006.
Lyle Ashton Harris
Lyle Ashton Harris was born in New York City but spent much of his youth in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He studied at Wesleyan University and the California Institute of the Arts.
For more than two decades, Lyle Ashton Harris has cultivated a diverse artistic practice ranging from photographic media, collage and installation to performance. His work explores intersections between the personal and the political, examining the impact of ethnicity, gender and desire on the contemporary social and cultural dynamic. Harris is known for his self-portraits and use of pop culture icons such as Billie Holiday and Michael Jackson.
His work has been exhibited internationally at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Venice Biennale; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; Kunsthalle Basel; and the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève. His commissioned work has been featured in a wide range of publications, including The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker.
Harris currently divides his time between New York and Ghana. He is as an Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Art Professions at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.
Earlie Hudnall, Jr.
Earlie Hudnall, Jr., was born and grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He developed an appreciation for personal history through his grandmother, who passed on to him stories of family and community. Years later, while majoring in art at Texas Southern University in Houston, he received encouragement from his teacher John Biggers (1924-2001) to draw upon his own experience in his art. Biggers, who had founded the university’s art department, urged his students to explore their African American heritage. Biggers achieved recognition as an artist for his drawings and sculptures, but he is best known for his murals. During his 34-year tenure at Texas Southern University, he trained a generation of African American artists and teachers. Earlie Hudnall, Jr., is part of his legacy.
As the yearbook editor at Texas Southern University, Hudnall went out into the community to document the lives of the people in the wards of Houston. The intimacy that he found among neighborhood residents in the predominantly African American Third Ward reminded Hudnall of the sense of community he had known as a child in Hattiesburg.
He is widely praised for his ability to capture the emotion in a seemingly mundane moment. Hudnall views his subjects as universal icons, capable of conveying stories about family and community regardless of their race. A mid-1970s project sent him into the streets of Houston to capture life in various neighborhoods. His devotion to this topic continues to this day. Hudnall is currently the university photographer for Texas Southern University.
Rashid Johnson was born in Chicago and studied at Columbia College Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Johnson is both a sculptor and photographer. His work is considered by many to be part of a “post-black art” movement and engages questions of personal, racial and cultural identity.
Johnson’s mixed-media work employs a variety of materials, including wood, tile, brass, steel and wax as well as an array of found objects, from books to plants. With his photography, Johnson has earned a reputation for his unique photo-printing process. The New York Times described some of his early black-and-white photography work as “spectacularly rich,” and the Chicago Sun-Times referred to his 2000 collection of portraits of homeless men as “stunning.”
In 2001, Johnson was the youngest artist, among 28 African American artists, to be featured in the 2001 exhibition Freestyle at The Studio Museum in Harlem. In 2002, he had his first solo museum exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
Over the years, his work has been exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the Corcoran Museum of Art, Washington D.C.; the Institute of Contemporary Photography, New York; the Brooklyn Museum, New York; the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut; the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago; and the Rubell Family Collection, Miami. In 2012, Johnson received the David C. Driskell Prize.
Ozier Muhammad was born and grew up in Chicago. He is the grandson of Elijah Muhammad, a founder of the Nation of Islam. Ozier studied photography at Columbia College Chicago and has been a professional photojournalist ever since. While serving on the staff of Newsday, he won the George Polk Award for News Photography in 1984. In 1985, Muhammad shared the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting with Josh Friedman and Dennis Bell for a series of reports entitled Africa, the Desperate Continent, which captured the plight of famine in drought-stricken Africa. From 1986 to 1987, he was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University.
In 1990, Muhammad was selected as a photographer for Songs of My People, 1992, a book, exhibition and multimedia project designed to present the African American experience through the visual arts. Since 1992, Ozier has been a staff photographer for The New York Times, where he has covered such major stories as the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa and the situation in Afghanistan immediately after the fall of the Taliban. During the Iraq War, he served as an embedded reporter with the Marine Corps; he also covered Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In 2007, he became a Peter Jennings Fellow at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Gordon Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, and decided to pursue photography in 1937, after viewing the works of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers in a magazine. A Julius Rosenwald Fund Fellowship provided Parks with an opportunity to work with the FSA in 1941, during which time he received extensive training as a photojournalist.
In 1948, he became the first African American photographer to be hired at Life, the largest-circulation magazine of its day, where he created compelling images that addressed the important issues of the post-World War II period, including the Civil Rights Movement and family life in America. Parks’ 1961 photographs in Life of a poor, ailing Brazilian boy named Flavio da Silva brought donations that saved the young boy’s life. During this period, he also photographed celebrities and fashion models for Vogue and Glamour.
Parks wrote about growing up in Fort Scott, Kansas, in his 1969 autobiographical novel and subsequent film The Learning Tree, which was among the 25 films placed on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1989. He went on to direct other films, author several books and compose music, including film scores and a ballet.
To Gordon Parks, the camera was “a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs.” A major retrospective exhibition of Parks’ work entitled Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks opened at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1998 and toured the United States. HBO produced a documentary on Parks, also entitled Half Past Autumn, in 2000. Parks received the National Medal of Arts in 1988 and has received more than fifty honorary doctorates.
Robert A. Sengstacke
An award-winning photojournalist for nearly 50 years, Robert A. Sengstacke has depicted African American experiences from the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Arts Movement. His work has received national as well as international recognition and acclaim. He was born in Chicago and, as a teenager, began freelancing as a photojournalist covering assignments for the youth section of the Chicago Defender, his family’s newspaper and publishing company.
Growing up with the newspaper gave Sengstacke unique access to important events and people. He learned to shoot from Lamonte McLemore, Billy Abernathy and Bob Black of the Chicago Sun-Times in the mid-1950s. Sengstacke produced thousands of black-and-white photographs of such well-known figures as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammad Ali, Gwendolyn Brooks and Imamu Amiri Baraka.
Sengstacke has been published in several books, including In Search of America, 2002; Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present, 2000; Black Nationalism: A Search for an Identity in America, 1962; Malcolm X: The Great Photographs, 1993; and The Dream Lives On: Martin Luther King, Jr., 1999. His work has appeared in a number of exhibitions, including Black Photographers Bear Witness: 100 Years of Social Protest, 1989, Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts; Two Schools: New York & Chicago – Contemporary African-American Photography of the 60s and 70s, 1986; Kenkeleba Gallery, New York; On Freedom: The Art of Photojournalism, 1986; The Studio Museum in Harlem; Tradition & Conflict: Images of a Turbulent Decade: 1963–1973, 1987, The Studio Museum in Harlem; and Southern Eye, Southern Mind: A Photographic Inquiry, 1981, Memphis Academy of Arts.
In recent years, Sengstacke has returned to the family business, joining with other family members in working with the Chicago Defender. He has been active in helping to increase the circulation of the paper, which remains one of the nation’s last African American daily newspapers.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Jamel Shabazz has been documenting urban life for more than 30 years. Shabazz has drawn inspiration from noted studio and documentary photographers such as James VanDerZee, Gordon Parks, Robert Capa, Chester Higgins, Jr., and Eli Reed. The author of three monographs – Back in the Days, 2001; The Last Sunday in June, 2003; and A Time Before Crack, 2005 – Shabazz is dedicated to mentoring young people, both in the field of photography and other areas of study.
Shabazz is a volunteer with the Rush Arts Philanthropic Foundation, an organization that exposes inner city youth to the arts. In addition, he has worked with The Studio Museum in Harlem’s Expanding the Walls project, a workshop focused on teaching youth the connection between photography, history and community. He has recently worked with the organization Plays for Living, another community-based organization dedicated to the well-being of young people.
Shabazz exhibited his photographic essay Back in the Days for CONTACT 2003 (Toronto) – a project reflecting a 20-plus-year documentation of 1980s urban life in his hometown and around the world, including the birth of hip-hop cultural forms, from fashion to performance, to verbal and visual languages. Shabazz has continually focused his lens on everyday family life in diasporic communities and the unique contributions that these communities have made to broader contemporary culture. His work has been shown in galleries worldwide.
Chuck Stewart studied music for eight years as a child, and, as he tells it, has had a love affair with music ever since. He received a Bachelor’s degree in Photography from Ohio University in 1949. Over the next five years, he covered the Korean War as a U.S. Army photographer, worked in travel and advertising photography, and began his documentation of the jazz world. Stewart apprenticed with the jazz photographer Herman Leonard and became friends with jazz musicians and bandleaders such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
He made the opening-night scene at Birdland and achieved an intimacy with his many subjects that shines through his photographic record of the classic years of jazz. His jazz photographs have appeared in his book Chuck Stewart’s Jazz Files (co-authored by Paul Carter Harrison), 1991; Leonard Feather’s The Encyclopedia of Jazz, 1955; Esquire’s Jazz Book; Downbeat magazine; The New York Times; Life; Paris Match; and numerous other magazines and newspapers. In addition, he has produced numerous album and CD cover photographs for jazz and popular performing artists. He received the Milt Hinton Award for Excellence in Jazz Photography in 2008.
James VanDerZee was born in Lenox, Massachusetts. As a youth, VanDerZee studied violin and piano and also developed an interest in photography. VanDerZee moved to New York City in 1908 and worked as a musician and music teacher for several years before opening his own Harlem photography studio in 1916.
While he would photograph several African American celebrities throughout the Harlem Renaissance, including Florence Mills, Hazel Scott and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., VanDerZee is recognized more for his pioneering portraits depicting everyday middle-class African American life. He captured weddings and funerals, family portraits, sports teams and members of lodges and clubs. Over the course of several decades, VanDerZee would take thousands of photographs.
With the advent of personal cameras, VanDerZee suffered the fate of many portrait photographers of the era, finding it difficult to make a living. To supplement his income, he expanded his business to include image restoration and mail order sales, but still struggled. In 1969, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, mounted an exhibition featuring VanDerZee, Harlem on My Mind, bringing the photographer and his work renewed attention.
Despite the recognition, VanDerZee and his second wife, Gaynella Greenlee, endured financial troubles that ultimately led to eviction from their Harlem apartment. They relocated to the Bronx. Following the death of his wife in 1976, it was reported that VanDerZee was destitute and living in squalor. An art gallery director, Donna Mussenden, would ultimately help VanDerZee resurrect his career, while also becoming his third wife. Bill Cosby, Lou Rawls, Cicely Tyson and Jean-Michel Basquiat were among his new subjects.
VanDerZee would go on to become a permanent fellow of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he was honored with a Living Legacy Award by President Jimmy Carter. He received an honorary doctorate from Howard University.
Carrie Mae Weems
Carrie Mae Weems was born in Portland, Oregon. She earned a BFA from the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, and an MFA from the University of California, San Diego. She continued her studies in the Graduate Folklore Program at the University of California, Berkeley. A noted storyteller, Weems uses family stories, songs, humor and history to create photographic series and videos that critique societal values on beauty, racism and stereotypes.
Weems has received honorary degrees from Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, and California College of the Arts, Oakland. She has received numerous grants and awards, including the Anonymous Was a Woman Award, the Skowhegan Medal for Photography, a Rome Prize Fellowship and a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant. Weems’ work has appeared in major exhibitions at institutions such as Savannah College of Art and Design; the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, Harvard University; the Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Ernest C. Withers
Ernest C. Withers was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and began photographing at the age of fourteen. For more than 70 years, he worked in Memphis, documenting the activities of civil rights workers, musicians, families and the local community. Significant within his large body of work is his ability to capture the duality of life in this Southern town. His images bear witness to the turmoil during the Civil Rights Movement, from the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 to the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Withers also photographed moments of triumph, including the first desegregated bus ride in Montgomery, Alabama.
Withers documented Memphis’s bustling Beale Street blues scene, making studio portraits of up-and-coming musicians and going inside the clubs for shots of live shows and their audiences. He photographed B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Ike and Tina Turner, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding and Al Green, among other noted artists. In 1956, he photographed a young Mr. Presley arm in arm with B.B. King at a Memphis club.
In one of his most moving and important photographs, he shows a large group of men, each holding a placard reading, “I AM A MAN,” at a Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. This was the last march led by Dr. King before his assassination in April 1968. Withers also documented Dr. King’s funeral, as well as the funeral of Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist who was killed in 1963. His photographs have been exhibited in museums around the country, and the monograph/exhibition is the first retrospective of his long career. Among his many awards and honors, Withers received two honorary doctorates and was inducted into the Black Press Hall of Fame in 1988.
This photograph of a woman going through a medical examination was taken at a free health clinic in Chicago. The light is soft, with the patient’s face emerging from shadow as the doctor begins the examination. As one might tell from the smooth fingers exploring the patient’s chin, the doctor is also a woman.
The barbershop serves as an important social, cultural and political site in many African American communities. Customers come not only to get a trim or a shave, but also to gossip, debate and gather together. Barbers are often an important part of their community, and in some cases, they can also act in a manner similar to that of spiritual advisors. This image by Dawoud Bey is from the Harlem, U.S.A. series – twenty-five photographs that document residents of the historic New York neighborhood during the late 1970s – and features Deas McNeil in his barbershop surrounded by the tools of his trade. By photographing McNeil at his chair in his shop, Bey is conveying the power and solace of the familiar as he continues to expand the political gesture of African American self-documentation.
Henry Clay Anderson
Henry Clay Anderson ran the Anderson Photo Service in Greenville, Mississippi, from the late 1940s to the 1960s, during which time seemingly every aspect of African American life came before his lens. Though highly segregated, Greenville was the site of a thriving middle-class, African American community – an aspect of American life that is all too rarely documented.
This image, photographed in front of Anderson’s studio, shows a beaming, leather-clad couple sitting on a heavily customized Harley Davidson motorcycle. The linear features of the buildings and sidewalk point toward the motorcycle and its riders, making them the visual focus of the photograph. The most striking areas of contrast in this black-and-white photograph are between the African American riders dressed in black and the white steel and glass headlights that dominate the front of the motorcycle.
Despite the lack of civil rights and crippling poverty that many African Americans faced during this time, this couple has both the resources and independence to travel on a motorcycle. This was obviously an important event in the couple’s life, which they wanted Anderson to capture for the future. By taking this photograph outside his own studio, Anderson also shows pride in his own achievements and his successful life in the segregated South.
This photograph is especially significant because it depicts a rarely recorded aspect of American culture: African American motorcyclists. Despite the prejudice facing African Americans in the South, this couple and the community of Greenville persevered – and enjoyed life to its maximum potential. Without Henry Clay Anderson’s photography, much of this thriving culture would have been forgotten. viii
Carrie Mae Weems
Carrie Mae Weems has spent her career creating works that explore identity, race, class, gender and politics. In After Manet, an image reminiscent of the formal nineteenth-century portrait, four girls dressed in summer dresses with garlands in their hair relax in the grass while three of them look straight into the camera. Part of Weems’ May Days Long Forgotten series, which consists of color photographs, black-and-white photographs and a video, one of the themes in After Manet is Soviet propaganda’s use of children to represent an idyllic and conformist future. A principal inspiration for this series was May Day – International Workers’ Day – a yearly celebration of labor rights that has taken place around the world since the late nineteenth century.
The title of this image is a play on words, suggesting that it is both “after” Manet in chronology and influenced by him – simultaneously an homage and a critique. The dominant figure of the young girl, with her bold, confident gaze and assured pose, recalls Édouard Manet’s 1863 painting, Olympia, in both defiant spirit and parody of the classic Odalisque character.
In the nineteenth century, young black women would not have been represented as the central figures in a work of art, but the self-assured expressions of the girls in After Manet showcase Weems’s ability to build upon Manet’s legacy. In her reworking of a motif from the past, black subjects play central rather than supporting roles.
Earlie Hudnall, Jr.
“It’s a rush, it’s an excitement, when you see the images of the picture and something sends off a signal that this is the moment to snap – to make the picture. That moment is very sacred and a very special kind of excitement. You are creating – you are freezing a moment in time, but you are having to work with the subject. You don’t have to speak…but there is this magical timing that [brings] you and the subject into orbit. Then that subject contributes to society in a way without even truly knowing that the image he provided at that precise moment can have an impact. To me that’s power. That’s the power.
“My father was an amateur photographer and my grandmother kept a photo album of his photographs while he was in the military service, and on…Sunday, sometimes on special holidays…special occasions, he would make pictures of us, my brother and sisters and I. My grandmother would sit on the porch during the summer and show it to us, back in Hattiesburg.
“In high school our physics instructor was teaching us about chemistry and physics, showing us the difference between chemical change and physical change. One example that he used [for chemical change] was to show negatives, because most people took them to the drugstore to have them developed. But he took the negatives into a darkroom with a light box, dropped them into the developer and then magic came forth. At that time the seed was planted…of a boy wanting to be like his father, and the instructor planting the seed of the experiment, of actually seeing an image come to life.
“I was hooked at that point on being a photographer, and during that summer in high school I remember going to the community swimming pool, taking my father’s camera that he purchased while he was in the service and making photographs – but lo and behold, I dropped the camera in the pool. The lifeguard dived in and got the camera out. I tried to dry it out – I took it home and hid it in the attic. And for some particular reason, my father never asked about it. Later on in life we talked about it and I told him what happened. So the seed of photography was basically planted. Going and joining the Marine Corps, I purchased a small camera and began to make pictures of the guys that was around and our activities, the places we traveled. So this is how it started, never knowing that I would pursue photography as a profession, but having that experience.” ix
– Earlie Hudnall, Jr.
Dawoud Bey's interest in photography was sparked when, at age 15, he attended The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition Harlem On My Mind, which included the work of such photographers as James VanDerZee. The experience became part of the inspiration for Bey's very first series, Harlem, U.S.A., begun in 1975.
“When I got to the Met to see the show my jaw must have dropped. I was mesmerized. Pictures. Black folks. Room after room. And other people walking around looking at these pictures. I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I had stumbled into some world I knew nothing about. It gave me a sense of photography’s documentary power, its potential to be a repository of collective memory, a doorway into another experience. That experience plus my family’s history there was probably what led me to begin photographing in Harlem in 1975.
“The response of the community was the most gratifying aspect of doing the show. People who had never been to the museum before came. They told me how much they like the work and how much it meant to see these pictures on the wall. It established a meaningful dialogue with a much broader and more diverse audience, which let me know there was another audience out there, beyond the one that traditionally has gone to museums.” x
– Dawoud Bey
In this photograph, Music – That Lordly Power, a young man plays a cello while a young woman reclines lovingly against him. Both have their eyes closed as they contemplate the music and the moment that they are sharing. Although we as viewers are unable to hear the sounds of the instrument, Parks has allowed us to be a part of the moment. Throughout his career as a photojournalist, especially during his time at Life magazine, Parks was able to depict universal emotions and feelings. He presented his subjects, particularly people of color, in a way that was relatable to all.
Robert A. Sengstacke
This image is not just a record of a critical moment in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s indefatigable fight for civil rights; it is an important image from the period in which he brought his message to Chicago. Chicago was then and may well be today one of the most segregated big cities in the United States. In this photograph, one can see Al Raby standing to Dr. King’s right. Ralph Abernathy is to the left. Raby – the key organizer of Dr. King’s several-month stay in Chicago – was an alderman who is one of the lesser-known but very important figures in elevating the quality of life for black Chicagoans.
Ernest C. Withers
On February 11, 1968, approximately 1,300 African American sanitation workers went on strike in Memphis, Tennessee, to protest unfair labor practices and wages. During this two-month strike, Ernest C. Withers captured what would become one of the most iconic images of the Civil Rights Movement when he documented the striking workers and their allies holding up signs that read, “I AM A MAN.” This photograph from his I AM a Man portfolio depicts sanitation workers, autoworkers and various members of the Memphis community as they take part in a commemorative march on April 8, 1968 to mourn and honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – one of history’s greatest advocates for social change – four days after he was killed in front of his Memphis hotel room. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, Withers would document the full range of its participants, from politicians to reverends, and from sanitation workers to students.
Selected text by Lauren Haynes and Ozier Muhammad.