P. (Prentice) H. Polk (1898-1984):
Old Characters Series: The Pipe Smoker.
Gelatin silver develop-out print, 1932.
Allen E. Cole (1893-1970): Councilman L. O.
Payne's (all female) basketball team.
Gelatin silver print, 1935.
Robert L. Haggins (b. 1922): Malcolm X with
Muhammad Ali in Harlem after Ali's
championship win. Gelatin silver print, 1964.
Reading the subtitle, A History of Black Photographers, one may expect an
equivalent to Lewis W. Hine's Children at Work, but the book by Deborah
Willis - a curator of photography at the Smithsonian Institution who has
earlier taught photography and the history of photography at New York University, the City University of New
York and the Brooklyn Museum - offers quite a different content. Reflections
in Black does not mainly document the misery of black men in America
through the works of
African-American photographers. The images of pride, dignity, beauty and
success show that the black photographers were not obsessed with race,
racism and documenting the Jim Crow system. Their work is largely a recognition of the cultural
contributions of African Americans to American society in sports, music,
dance, literature, politics and a celebration of black social and economic
This first comprehensive history of black
photographers by Deborah Willis illustrates the work of African American
photography from 1840 to the present. Just one year after the
daguerreotype was invented in 1939, Jules Lion, "a freeman of
colour", opened a studio in New Orleans. Rapidly, hundreds of free men and
women established themselves as professional photographers, documenting,
independently from each other, life in their communities. From the very beginning, these photographers
used the camera to reclaim their people's experiences and lives, giving
their people both humanity and individuality, resisting
all the pressure on and stereotypes about African Americans. The nearly
600 photographs assembled by Willis document black life from the last
generation of slaves to the present day.
Among the hundreds of famous and unknown African American photographers
presented are James Presley Ball, C. M. Battey, Allen E. Cole, Gordon Parks,
Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Prentice H. Polk, Robert L. Haggins,
Robert McNeill, Chuck Stewart and James
VanDerZee, on whom Willis has published the monographic VanDerZee: The
Portraits of James VanDerZee (1993).
Jules Lion (1810-1866) was a forerunner and
one of fifty documented black daguerrotypists who successfully operated
galleries in American cities. Lion had moved to New Orleans from his
native France in 1837. Originally a lithographer and portrait painter, he
had exhibited at the Exposition of Paris in 1833, where he was awarded an
honorable mention for one of his lithographs. In 1841, he co-founded an
art school in New Orleans and from 1852 to 1865, he listed as a professor
of drawing at the College of Louisiana. Lion exhibited his first
daguerrotypes in New Orleans in 1840. None of them survived.
In contrast to Lion, James Presley Ball
(1825-1904/05?) and Augustus Washington (1820-75) were politically engaged
abolitionists. They "used their photographic skills to expose the
abhorrent institution of slavery by promoting antislavery activities. Ball
was a free black man, a photographer and a businessman who "created a
moving account of black life for the sole purpose of lecturing on the
brutality of the institution."
In the 19th century, technical and
commercial limitations made black photographers succeed mostly at
portraiture and studio photography rather than at creating news,
industrial and landscape images. Willis has selected the best examples of
surviving works of the mid-nineteenth-century photographers and has
assembled biographical information on all known photographers. The
twentieth-century section of Reflections in Black serves, in
Willis' own words, "as a visual record of not only social concerns of
the majority of black Americans but also the reflexive experience of both
the photographers and their communities."
The essential part of Reflections in Black is
dedicated to everyday life, to sportsmen and women (basketball teams,
baseball players, boxers) and to musicians (Dinah Washington, Betty
Carter, Max Roach, John Coltrane and others) as well as to other artists
who enriched Americas culture.