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Perspectives In Circulation

A Snapshot of Black Photographers in Watson Library's Collection

Celebrating Black History Month in the Stacks

Feb 22, 2023

Black and white photograph of school child

Black artists have been involved with photography almost since its inception. Black Artists in Photography, 1840–1940 takes a look at some of these early pioneers, including Augustus Washington. In the 1840s, Washington began making daguerreotypes to help pay for college. Eventually, he quit school and opened the first professional photo studio in Hartford, Connecticut. Though he was a successful businessman and active in the abolitionist movement, Washington became disillusioned with the plight of Blacks in America and chose to immigrate to Liberia in Africa. This daguerreotype of an unnamed Liberian diplomat was made by Washington sometime after he arrived in the country in 1853.

Black and white portrait of a seated man

George Sullivan, Black Artists in Photography, 1840–1940 (New York: Cobblehill Books, 1996)

A century later, Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle showcases one of the most photographed movements in the 20th century with images that may have escaped our collective memory. The book discusses the ways photographs were used to chronicle events of the era and the different ways photos were used by Black and white media to inform or inflame their audiences. During the trial of the men who killed Emmett Till, the teen’s great-uncle is shown on the witness stand pointing out the defendants as those who kidnapped Till. It’s a powerful moment—a black man standing in court accusing white men of a crime in the South in the 1950s—and it was captured in secret since cameras were banned during testimony.

Candid photograph from a courtroom featuring a man pointing

Unidentified photographer, "Moses Wright on the Witness Stand in Sumner, Mississippi, September 22, 1955." From Martin A. Berger, Freedom Now!: Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle (Berkeley, Calif.: University Of California, 2013)

The Civil Rights Era serves as inspiration for photographers to this day. All Power: Visual Legacies of the Black Panther Party looks at some contemporary artists influenced by the Black Panther movement and its tenets. In this series called “To Kill or Allow To Live,” Ayana V. Jackson depicts her great-grandmother, stating, “The Victorian Dressed grandmother is dodging the Bullets of Justice, until she succumbs to the criminal justice system in the end.”

4 black and white photographs of a woman in a dress

Ayana V. Jackson’s photographs, clockwise from top left: “The Romance of Sovereignty;” “The Horizon of Meaning;” “The Work of Death;” “The State of Injury.” From All Power: Visual Legacies of the Black Panther Party (Seattle, WA: Minor Matters Books LLC, 2016)

Our library has been working steadily in recent years to build its collections of previously underrepresented groups. One recent acquisition made as part of our African Artists Project is this book on Ghanaian photographer James Barnor. Pictured here is “Ever Young,” the photo studio he started in the 1950s. Ghana gained its independence from Great Britain in 1957, and Barnor captured daily life from his studio in the former colony and budding nation.

Man leaning against a car

James Barnor: Ever Young (Paris : Clémentine de la Feronnière, [2015])

Barnor moved to London during the 1960s to formally study photography. He continued to take pictures of people from the African diaspora, like BBC Radio journalist Mike Eghan modelling in Piccadilly Circus for the African magazine Drum.

Man in a tie and jacket on staircase

Mike Eghan at Piccadilly Circus, London, 1967. From James Barnor: Ever Young (Paris: Clémentine de la Feronnière, [2015])

In Enough, Laurent B. Chevalier gives us a photo-essay about "the intersections of being Black and human.” The pictures, taken over the course of five years and interspersed with poetry by Dr. Jamila Lysicott, could depict any day in New York City.

Black and white photograph of school child

Laurent B. Chevalier, Enough (Queens, N.Y.: Kris Graves Project, LLC, ©2020)

The challenges Black women face in the corporate workplace are the subject of Endia Beal’s Performance Review. The title comes from the often-dreaded corporate evaluation tool, which is meant to appraise job performance, but as Beal explains “also judge our ability to follow an unwritten script about how to look, talk, and behave.” Against a photo backdrop of her first office, Beal poses young Black women who are moving from academia into the corporate world and interviews them about their hopes, dreams, and fears about working in an office environment. A later section of the book, “Can I Touch It?”, looks at the contentious issues around Black women’s hair and people’s behavior related to it in corporate settings.

Woman in an office setting

Martinique in Performance Review (Seattle; New York: Minor Matters, [2020])

When Beyoncé appeared on the cover of Vogue in September 2018, she was photographed for the first time by a Black photographer, Tyler Mitchell, and it signaled a change in how Black beauty would be recognized in the fashion world. The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion breaks down stereotypical depictions and shows vibrant images of Black people in all of their diversity.

Hair clips in hair

Micaiah Carter, “Adeline in Barrettes” (2018). From The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion (New York, NY: Aperture Foundation, 2019)

If you wish to learn about more Black photographers in the Watson Library and the Museum, be sure to look through our Index of African American Artists. Also of note, The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently acquired the archive of noted photographer James Van Der Zee, comprising over 20,000 photographs and 30,000 negatives and spanning most of the 20th century.

About the contributors

Assistant Museum Librarian, Finance and Administration, Thomas J. Watson Library