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Article

Camara Dia Holloway

(b Virginia, 1825; d Honolulu, HI, May 3, 1904).

African American photographer. Ball’s parents, William and Susan Ball, were freeborn Americans of African descent. J. P. Ball learned how to make daguerreotypes from a black Bostonian, John P. Bailey. He opened his first photographic enterprise in Cincinnati, OH, in 1845. Black-owned businesses seemed viable in this abolitionist stronghold and key conduit to the West. After a failed first venture and time as an itinerant photographer, he returned and opened Ball’s Great Daguerrean Gallery of the West in 1849, which became one of the largest and most successful photographic studios in the region with an enthusiastic multi-racial clientele. Ball hired other African Americans as operators, including his brother, Thomas Ball, his brother-in-law, Alexander Thomas, and the African American landscape painter, Robert S. Duncanson.

An activist for abolition, Ball produced a painted panorama that illustrated the history of African enslavement in 1855 and authored the accompanying pamphlet to great acclaim. With a national reputation and important portrait commissions from such cultural icons as Frederick Douglass and Jenny Lind, Ball expanded with a second studio operated by his brother-in-law who had become a favorite with clients. Together they started an additional studio, the Ball & Thomas Photographic Art Gallery. Ball’s Cincinnati enterprises survived well into the 1880s in the hands of Thomas and other Ball relatives since they remained current with photographic technologies....

Article

Camara Dia Holloway

[Smikle, David Edward]

(b Queens, NY, Nov 25, 1953).

African American photographer. Bey was born and raised in the neighborhood of Jamaica, in Queens, New York City. His interest in photography was cemented by viewing the now infamous exhibition, Harlem on My Mind, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969. He studied at the School of Visual Arts during 1976–8, later earning his BFA from Empire State College, State University of New York in 1990, followed by his MFA from Yale University School of Art in 1993.

Bey launched his career in 1975 with the Harlem, USA series, following in the footsteps of street photographers who found the predominantly African American community a compelling subject. This series of black-and-white portraits became the subject of Bey’s first solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979.

During the 1980s, Bey continued making portraits expanding his terrain beyond Harlem. Sensitive to the politics of representing African Americans, he developed strategies to equalize the photographic encounter. Bey began using a large-format view camera on a tripod that he set up in the street. He established a dialogue with his sitters and gifted them with a print of their portrait. This was facilitated by his discovery of 4×5 Polaroid positive/negative Type 55 film that yielded virtually instant prints....

Article

Mary M. Tinti

(b Colgate, Jamaica, Oct 16, 1960).

African American photographer of Jamaican birth. Although born in Jamaica, Cox was raised in an upper–middle-class neighborhood in Scarsdale, NY. Interested in both film and photography, Cox favored the latter for its immediacy and began her study of the craft while at Syracuse University. After a brief stint as a fashion photographer, Cox received her MFA from the New York School of Visual Arts in 1992 and participated in the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program from 1992–3.

Cox became a household name in 2001 when New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani took great offense at Yo Mama’s Last Supper (1996), a controversial photographic reinterpretation of Leonardo’s Last Supper, unveiled at the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers. (The photo featured a nude Cox, with arms outstretched, flanked by 11 black, dreadlocked apostles and a white Judas.) Outraged at the image’s supposedly irreverent, anti-Catholic overtones, Giuliani called for a special commission on decency to oversee organizations whose exhibitions benefited from public funds. The subsequent media frenzy earned Cox (who was raised Catholic) much publicity in the popular press, which in turn brought new critical attention to her works....

Article

James Smalls

(b New York, NY, Dec 9, 1919; d New York, NY, Oct 27, 2009).

American photographer and teacher. A central figure in post-war American photography, DeCarava strongly believed ‘in the power of art to illuminate and transform our lives’. Using Harlem as his subject, DeCarava created groundbreaking pictures of everyday life in that enclave of New York. He is also known for scenes of civil rights protests of the early 1960s, images of jazz musicians, and lyrical studies of nature.

DeCarava studied painting and printmaking at the Cooper Union School of Art, the Harlem Community Art Center, and the George Washington Art School. He took up photography in the late 1940s and quickly mastered its vocabulary. In 1952, DeCarava won a Guggenheim Fellowship—the first awarded to an African American photographer. The scholarship allowed him to spend a year photographing daily life in Harlem. These pictures brought a new moderation and intimacy to the photographing of African Americans and their social environment. Perhaps his most memorable photographs were those that appeared in the book ...

Article

Catherine M. Grant and Margaret Rose Vendryes

(b Cleveland, OH, 1959).

American printmaker, film maker, installation and conceptual artist and writer.

Green, of African descent, has worked primarily with film-based media, and has published criticism and designed installations that reveal her commitment to ongoing feminist and black empowerment movements. She earned her BA from Wesleyan University in 1981 and also spent some time at the School of Visual Arts in New York in 1980, returning in the late 1980s to study in the Whitney Independent Study Program, graduating in 1990. At the age of 24 she began exhibiting her comparative compositions containing found objects, images, and texts that question recorded history.

Green’s work deals with issues of anthropology and travel. By undertaking projects via the methodology of the 19th-century explorer, she exposed the arbitrary and prejudiced nature of classification, as in Bequest (1991; see 1993 exh. cat.), an installation she made at the invitation of the Worcester Museum of Art to commemorate their 50th anniversary. Using the museum as a ready-made stage set, she installed works of art alongside 19th-century texts explaining stereotypes of whiteness and blackness. Green characteristically intervened in the history of her chosen site to produce a fiction that included her own responses as an African American woman to her findings. In ...

Article

James Smalls

(b Bronx, New York, 1965).

African American photographer. Harris is best known for his dramatically staged self-portraits (in which he performs roles of the opposite gender or race) and photographs of his family members and friends. His works are conceptually and theoretically informed by elements of history and an awareness of the concerns of feminist, gay and lesbian, and postcolonial discourses.

Harris graduated with an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia in 1990. He studied at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York in 1991 and in the Independent Study Program at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1992. His work has been exhibited internationally, including at both the Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN, the Kunsthalle, Basel, and the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva.

In most of his photographs, Harris uses his own body as a conduit through which he poses questions and brings up issues around race, gender, and sexuality. In them, Harris assumes a variety of poses and roles—as boxer, ballerina, Billie Holiday, diva or gangster. As such, his photographs constitute investigations into the incoherencies of accepted and acceptable identities....

Article

Geoffrey Belknap

(b Paris, c. 1816; d New Orleans, LA, Jan 9, 1866).

African American lithographer, daguerreotypist, and painter of French birth. Lion was born in Paris and trained as an artist in France before moving to the United States in 1837. He is noted as the first African American to adopt the daguerreotype method, and one of the first daguerreotypists active in the United States. For much of his life, Lion resided in New Orleans and operated his photographic studios in the city. He was active as a photographer for a relatively short period of time—between 1840 and 1845—and because of this only a small number of his views of New Orleans streets remain, primarily in the form of lithographic prints made from daguerreotypes (now presumed lost). In addition to making his lithographic copies, Lion gained notoriety in New Orleans for offering lectures and exhibitions of the daguerreotype process following the announcement of its invention. After leaving photography behind in 1845...

Article

Reinhold Misselbeck

revised by Kimberly Juanita Brown

(Roger Alexander Buchanan )

(b Fort Scott, KS, Nov 30, 1912; d New York, NY, March 7, 2006).

African American photographer, writer, film maker, and composer. Parks was the youngest of 15 children and, after the early death of his mother, he took on responsibilities for himself and his family as a teenager. Parks worked in a number of professions before becoming a self-taught freelance photographer in 1937. After getting his start in fashion photography, he worked as one of the Farm Security Administration’s photographic team (1942–3) and held a similar post with the Office of War Information (1943–5). During this time he produced now iconic pictures such as American Gothic (1942), which features a black cleaner in front of the American flag staring into the camera with mop and broom upturned, as if in salute. Parks was soon hired as a photographer for Life magazine, where he worked from 1948 to 1961. During this period he famously photographed such political figures as Malcolm X, members of the Black Panther Party (along with Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver), as well as urban strife and poverty in Harlem, NY, and Rio de Janeiro. He took photographs of actors (Marilyn Monroe), sports heroes (Muhammad Ali), and singers (Barbra Streisand) while remaining dedicated to social ...

Article

Camara Dia Holloway

(b Bessemer, AL, Nov 25, 1898; d Tuskegee, AL, Dec 29, 1984).

African American photographer. Born Herman Polk to Jacob Prentice Polk and Christine Romelia Ward, he attended Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (later University) in Alabama from 1916 to 1920, where he became known as “P. H.” having adopted his deceased father’s name. At Tuskegee, he was the first student of the African American photographer C. M. Battey (1873–1927) who founded the school’s Photographic Division in 1916. Polk moved to Chicago in 1922 where his family had relocated. He continued learning photography via a correspondence course followed by an internship with Fred A. Jensen, a prominent local white photographer, while working as a painter for the Pullman Company.

In Chicago, Polk met and married Margaret Blanche Thompson on 12 January 1926. Over a year and a half later, he moved back to Tuskegee with his wife and son and established his own studio. During this period, African American practitioners around the country were able to establish successful photography studios that catered to a predominantly African American clientele. It was around this time as well that Polk began his “Old Characters” series of uncommissioned portraits of formerly enslaved Africans from the surrounding Macon County. A popular and critically acclaimed image of an older woman from the series titled ...

Article

Anne K. Swartz

(b Brooklyn, NY, Aug 13, 1960).

African American photographer and multimedia artist. Simpson attended the High School of Art and Design then received her BFA in Photography from the School of Visual Arts, New York City in 1982 and her MFA in Visual Arts from University of California, San Diego in 1985. She focused on photography for both degrees. While still in graduate school she started complicating the presumed transparency of photography, experimenting with the clarity of the narrative, the deconstruction of narrative as associated with photography and an investigation of the transparency of photography. She would incorporate images of a figure turned away from the viewer alongside text that commented on the experience of women of colour in the patriarchy, as evidenced in The Waterbearer (1996; New York, Sean and Mary Kelly col.). A lone female figure pours water from two containers and the text at the bottom proclaims, ‘She Saw Him Disappear By The River, They Asked Her To Tell What Happened, Only To Discount Her Memory’, as an indication of the way the woman’s voice and experience is disregarded....

Article

Erika Billeter

(b Lenox, MA, June 29, 1886; d Washington, DC, May 15, 1983).

American photographer. America’s first eminent black photographer, he lived in Harlem, New York, and there in 1916 opened his own photographic studio, Guarantee Photos (later called GGG Photo Studio), which he ran until 1968. He worked on commission as a photo-reporter and as a portrait and society photographer. In his work he sought to uncover glamour in Harlem, the cultural capital of black America, picturing it not as a ghetto but as a characterful part of the city. He succeeded in producing a cumulative view of the social structure of Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s; however romanticized, his photographs form an important historical archive, which is now kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Van Der Zee, James The World of James Van Der Zee: A Visual Record of Black Americans (New York, 1969) The Legacy of James Van Der Zee: A Portrait of Black Americans...

Article

Sarah Kate Gillespie

(b Trenton, NJ, 1820/21; d Monrovia, June 7, 1875).

American photographer, active also in Liberia. One of the few African American daguerreotypists whose career has been documented by modern scholars, Washington was born in Trenton, NJ, as the son of a former slave. He became interested in the abolitionist movement at an early age, and worked hard to achieve an education, first studying at the Oneida Institute and later at Kimball Union Academy, Meriden, NH. Washington attended Dartmouth College in 1843 and learned daguerreotyping during his freshman year as a way to help pay for his schooling. He left Dartmouth in 1844 and moved to Hartford, CT, where he opened one of the city’s first daguerreotype studios two years later. By the early 1850s Washington was one of the premiere daguerreotypists in Hartford, catering to a broad and fairly élite clientele. One of his best-known portraits from this period dates from 1846–7, and is the earliest surviving photograph of abolitionist John Brown (daguerreotype; Washington, DC, N. P. G.). Brown is pictured holding a flag, possibly for the ‘Subterranean Pass Way’ (Brown’s version of the underground railroad), in one hand; the other hand raised as if taking a pledge. Despite Washington’s success, he remained wary of race relations in the United States, unconvinced that emancipation would lead to improved circumstances for blacks living in the United States. Closing his studio in Hartford, Washington immigrated to Liberia with his wife and two children in ...

Article

Mary Chou

(b Portland, OR, April 20, 1953).

American photographer . Weems earned a BFA from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia in 1981 and a MFA from the University of California, San Diego, in 1984. From 1984 to 1987 she pursued graduate studies in folklore at the University of California, Berkeley. Weems is well known for integrating photographs, text and audio recordings in installations that explore themes of racism, gender, identity and family from a personal as well as cultural, national and historical perspective.

Weems’s first major work, Family Pictures and Stories (1978–84), is a family album with images of her relatives interspersed with printed anecdotes and interviews that mines the history of her own family—sharecroppers who moved from Mississippi to Oregon in the early 1950s—as well as the language, relationships and history of African American families in general. In her subsequent series, Ain’t Jokin’ (1987–8), she superimposed racist jokes, riddles and epithets onto portraits of African Americans with wit and humour in order to provoke and confront viewers with their own prejudices and racist attitudes. Another series, ...

Article

Camara Dia Holloway

(b Philadelphia, PA, Feb 5, 1948).

American photographer, curator and scholar. Willis was born in North Philadelphia to a hairdresser mother and a policeman father who was an amateur photographer. Within a familial and communal context, Willis learned that photographs could function as powerful statements of African American identity. These ideas were reinforced by reading her family’s copy of the publication The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955) that featured the photographs of Roy DeCarava, a major African American photographer. She also attended the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition, Harlem on My Mind in 1969. Willis earned a BFA from the Philadelphia College of Art in 1975 and an MFA from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1979. Inspired by the quilting and storytelling traditions in her family, Willis developed a practice that combined her photographs, family photographs and other elements into autobiographical quilts. Her later works focused more on the female body.

From 1980 to 1992...