Collecting Works by African-American Photographers

Since its inception photography has been an ever-evolving and changing medium with artists continuously pushing the envelope of what photography can be. From purely documentary purposes to an interest in the exploration of shadow in light. Here we take a look at a selection of African-American photographers from the Harlem Renaissance through today that embody this change.

James Van Der Zee

James Van Der Zee, Nude, Harlem, silver print, 1923. Sold October 8, 2019 in African-American Fine Art for $2,500.

James Van Der Zee opened Guarantee Photos, later G.G.G. Photo Studio, in Harlem in 1916. He photographed everything and everyone in the neighborhood through the 1960s, taking society and funeral portraits, as well as journalistic images of marches and neighborhood landmarks. Among his most famous portraits are those of Marcus Garvey, Teddy Hill and Hazel Scott. His tremendous contribution to the Harlem community went unrecognized for much of his life.

Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks, Two Boys Reading, silver print, circa 1940s. Sold October 17, 2019 in Classic & Contemporary Photographs for $8,125.

Gordon Parks found himself in the world of photography after purchasing a camera from a pawn shop. Self-taught, he found himself employed by the Farm Security Administration making photos that explored issues of poverty and racism. In 1948 he joined Life magazine where he worked until the early 1970s. His work resides in the permanent collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Gordon Parks, Untitled (from Harlem is Nowhere), silver print, 1948. Sold February 16, 2012 in African-American Fine Art for $14,400.

In 1948, Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison collaborated on a photojournalism project, the subject of which was the LaFargue Psychiatric Clinic in Harlem. Ellison, no stranger to photography, developed the shooting script. The two men roamed Harlem, making images for what Ellison believed would make for “something new in photojournalism.” They intended on its publication in Magazine of the Year, 1948, which did not come to fruition. Instead, Parks’s photographs were then published in Life magazine.

Related Reading: Beyond Migrant Mother: Five FSA Photographers to Know

Roy DeCarava

Roy DeCarava‘s photographs are masterpieces of light and shadow. He initially worked as a painter and printmaker but began exploring photography in the late 1940s. By 1952 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. A remarkable image-maker, DeCarava was a sophisticated photographic printer, creating photographs that drew on his experiences living in Harlem. In the photo above, Harry Belafonte appears with members of the vocal group The Belafonte Folk Singers. They performed together at Carnegie Hall as part of the live performance and double album recording—Harry Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall on May 2, 1960.

Roy DeCarava, Dancers (Harlem), silver print, 1955, printed 1982. Sold February 21, 2019 in Photographs: Art & Visual Culture for $52,500.

Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems‘s work explores social forces—power, social expectations and self-worth. Through her images, she challenges society’s ideas of race, sex and class.

Carrie Mae Weems, Black Woman with Chicken, black and white silver print of a woman holding a chicken leg, with text that reads "Black Woman with Chicken," 1987.
Carrie Mae Weems, Black Woman with Chicken, silver print, 1987. Sold October 8, 2019 in African-American Fine Art for $25,000.

Both White Patty and Black Woman with Chicken are scarce works from the artist’s 1987-88 series, Ain’t Jokin. Kathryn E. Delmez, author of Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video, describes this early series as examining, “humor as a socially acceptable way to promote officially unacceptable ideologies through unflinching pairings of stage photographs with racist jokes, ideas or phrases.” The series is also the first in which Weems incorporates text with her photographs.

Carrie Mae Weems, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, three color chromogenic prints of a young man covering his eyes, hears and mouth, 1995.
Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil), three chromogenic prints, 1995. Sold October 8, 2019 in African-American Fine Art for $4,000.

The original Unititled (See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil) triptych was comprised of individual Polaroid photographs. In 1990, Weems was invited by the company to use their mammoth 20-by-24-inch camera. It was Weem’s first use of color in her work.

Related Reading: Collecting Photographs by African-American Women and A Contemporary Collection Highlights African-American Women

Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey, Barack Obama, archival pigment print, 2007. Sold October 8, 2019 in African-American Fine Art for $10,625.

Born in New York City, Dawoud Bey received his MFA from Yale University in 1993. He began his first series of photographs entitled Harlem, USA in 1975, and would later be exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979. The present photograph of Barack Obama was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Taken in early 2007, before he would become the 44th President of the United States, the image shows Obama in his Hyde Park home in Chicago. “I wanted an interesting animation of the body, and finally through camera positioning and having him turn himself slightly I figured it out,” noted Bey of the photograph in a 2014 New York Times article. The photograph was included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial.  

Bey is well known for his recent work, Birmingham: Four Girls and Two Boys, a project that features photographic pairing focused on the tragic events surrounding the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

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