8 Quintessential Black Photographers and Their Books

October 26, 2020

While the racial identity is not the driver behind some of the black artists' practices, others make their black experience the center of it, challenging the established cultural stereotypes and generalizations.

Here, we pay tribute to a thriving field of African American photography. Many of the Black photographers on our list saw photography as a tool for social change, seeking to communicate the African American experience and culture and expand how it is seen and understood. Through the work of these photographers, we can witness the rage, the sadness, the pain, the beauty, the pride and power of belonging to a community that has been antagonized through America's history.

Featured image: Carrie Mae Weems, The Hampton Project exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art, 2000. Image by Cdebary via Wikimedia Commons.

Gordon Parks

One of the most renowned photographers of his age, Gordon Parks explored the social and economic impact of racism through his chosen medium. Chronicling the African American experience through the fullest range of subjects, he created a powerful and poetic body of work which communicated difficult truths.

Seeing photography as a tool for fighting oppression he had experienced for much of his life, he shaped the times in which he lived as much as he was shaped by them. Focusing on issues of civil rights, poverty, race relations and urban life, his oeuvre reveals important aspects of American culture and represents issues and themes that still resonate deeply with us today.

Editors’ Tip: Gordon Parks: The New Tide: Early Work 1940–1950

Focusing on new research and access to forgotten pictures, The New Tide, Early Work 1940–1950 documents the importance of these years in shaping Gordon Parks' passionate vision. The book brings together photographs and publications made during the first and most formative decade of his 65-year career. During the 1940s Parks' photographic ambitions grew to express a profound understanding of his cultural and political experiences. From the first photographs he published in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and his relationship to the Chicago Black Renaissance, to his mentorship with Roy Stryker and his breakthrough work for America's influential picture magazines―including Ebony and Life―this book traces Parks' rapid evolution from an accomplished, self-taught practitioner to a groundbreaking artistic and journalistic voice.

Featured image: Gordon Parks: The New Tide: Early Work 1940-1950.

Carrie Mae Weems

An award-winning American artist, Carrie Mae Weems explores family relationships, cultural identity, sexism, class, political systems and the consequences of power. Her complex body of art employs photographs, text, fabric, audio, digital images, installation, and video, but regardless of medium, activism is a central concern of her practice. As she explained, "photography can be used as a powerful weapon toward instituting political and cultural change."

Through a range of means, Weems has been tracing an indirect history of the depiction of African Americans of more than a century. Combining narrative forms of social documentary, tableaux, self-portrait, and oral history, she has created a powerful, groundbreaking work that is poignantly relevant in these times.

Editors’ Tip: Carrie Mae Weems: Kitchen Table Series

Kitchen Table Series is the first publication dedicated solely to this early and important body of work by the American artist Carrie Mae Weems. The 20 photographs and 14 text panels that make up Kitchen Table Series tell a story of one woman’s life, as conducted in the intimate setting of her kitchen. The kitchen, one of the primary spaces of domesticity and the traditional domain of women, frames her story, revealing to us her relationships―with lovers, children, friends―and her own sense of self, in her varying projections of strength, vulnerability, aloofness, tenderness and solitude. As Weems describes it, this work of art depicts "the battle around the family ... monogamy ... and between the sexes."

Featured image: Carrie Mae Weems: Kitchen Table Series.

Dawoud Bey

An acclaimed American photographer, Dawoud Bey is best known for his large-scale color portrait photographs of African American adolescents and other often marginalized subjects. Over the course of his career that spans four decades, he had produced a unique representation of various communities across the United States with dignity and nuance. His practice has been defined by the empathy and complexity he brings to those often stereotyped subjects and their environments.

Through his work, Bey strives to expand how the black experience is seen and understood, seeking to give his subject a compelling representation and presence. He has also worked with young people, museums and cultural institutions to broaden the participation of various communities whose voices have often been absent in these institutions.

Editors’ Tip: Dawoud Bey: Seeing Deeply

Dawoud Bey: Seeing Deeply offers a forty-year retrospective of the celebrated photographer’s work, from his early street photography in Harlem to his current photographs of Harlem gentrification. Photographs from all of Bey’s major projects are presented in chronological sequence, allowing viewers to see how the collective body of portraits and recent landscapes create an unparalleled historical representation of various communities in the United States. Leading curators and critics—Sarah Lewis, Deborah Willis, David Travis, Hilton Als, Jacqueline Terrassa, Rebecca Walker, Maurice Berger, and Leigh Raiford—introduce each series of photographs.

Featured image: Dawoud Bey: Seeing Deeply.

Lorna Simpson

An American photographer and multimedia artist, Lorna Simpson explores themes of race and society. Through her multidisciplinary and complex work that merges words with photographs, she raises questions about the nature of representation, identity, gender, race and history.

Approaching photography as a conceptual medium, Simpson creates her pieces from both original photographs and found images from eBay and flea markets. Using unidentified figures as a visual point of departure, she seeks to comment on the documentary nature of found or staged images. Often associated with postcolonial and feminist critique, Simpson’s work seeks to reveal the ways in which race and gender shape human interactions, relationships and experiences of lives in contemporary America.

Editors’ Tip: Lorna Simpson

Lorna Simpson is one of the leading photographers of her generation, devoted to the beauty of image-making, innovatively juxtaposing the figure and gesture with text and narrative. This rich monograph, created to accompany the major retrospective of Simpson's work touring in Los Angeles, Miami, and New York (among other destinations) beginning this spring, includes insightful essays by curator and critic Okwui Enwezor and New Yorker writer Hilton Als, and a conversation with the artist, Isaac Julien, and Thelma Golden, along with 126 reproductions from Simpson's formally elegant, subtly provocative body of work-including her recent work.

Featured image: Lorna Simpson.

LaToya Ruby Frazier

Working in photography, but also video and performance, LaToya Ruby Frazier examines industrialism, rustbelt revitalization, environmental justice, healthcare inequity, family and communal history. Throughout her career, she has been documenting the dignity, hope, and perseverance of working-class black life in the midst of crisis and decline.

Approaching camera as a weapon and agent of social change, Frazier captures social inequality and historical change in the postindustrial age. Drawing on documentary practices of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, she creates simple yet poignant visual testimonials about race, class, family, and displacement in a specific manner of self-portraiture and social narrative.

Editors’ Tip: LaToya Ruby Frazier: The Notion of Family

LaToya Ruby Frazier’s award-winning first book, The Notion of Family, offers an incisive exploration of the legacy of racism and economic decline in America’s small towns, as embodied by her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania. The work also considers the impact of that decline on the black community and on her family, creating a statement both personal and truly political—an intervention in the histories and narratives of the region. Frazier has compellingly set her story of three generations—her Grandma Ruby, her mother, and herself—against larger questions of civic belonging and responsibility. The work documents her own struggles and interactions with family and the expectations of community, and includes the documentation of the demise of Braddock’s only hospital, reinforcing the idea that the history of a place is frequently written on the body as well as the landscape.

Featured image: LaToya Ruby Frazier: The Notion of Family.

Deana Lawson

An American photographer and educator, Deana Lawson is celebrated for her raw, yet highly sophisticated compositions, in which she depicts black cultural symbols. Her practice revolves around issues of spirituality, intimacy, sexuality, family, and Black aesthetics, articulated through a well-balanced socio-political prism. Her work examines the body’s ability to channel personal and social histories.

Capturing black subjects in localized situations, Lawson approaches them with an empathetic eye and keen anthropological interest in their social and physical environments. She also traveled to countries like Jamaica, Ethiopia, Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo, seeking to portray their cultural histories by capturing the behaviors, facial expressions and fashion of people who live there.

Editors’ Tip: Deana Lawson: An Aperture Monograph

Deana Lawson is one of the most intriguing photographers of her generation. Over the last ten years, she has created a visionary language to describe identities through intimate portraiture and striking accounts of ceremonies and rituals. Using medium- and large-format cameras, Lawson works with models she meets in the United States and on travels in the Caribbean and Africa to construct arresting, highly structured, and deliberately theatrical scenes animated by an exquisite range of color and attention to surprising details: bedding and furniture in domestic interiors or lush plants in Edenic gardens. Throughout her work, which invites comparison to the photography of Diane Arbus, Jeff Wall, and Carrie Mae Weems, Lawson seeks to portray the personal and the powerful in black life. Deana Lawson: An Aperture Monograph features forty beautifully reproduced photographs, an essay by the acclaimed writer Zadie Smith, and an expansive conversation with the filmmaker Arthur Jafa.

Featured image: Deana Lawson: An Aperture Monograph.

James Van Der Zee

A renowned American photographer, James Van Der Zee is best known for his portraits of black New Yorkers. Establishing the Guarantee Photo Studio in Harlem in the 1920s, he became the most successful photographer in the community.

During the 1920s and 30s, he documented Harlem’s growing middle class in hundreds of portrait photographs. In his photo studio, he chronicled the people and celebrations of Harlem, including schoolchildren, church groups, celebrities, weddings, funerals, and social life in general. Among his most prominent subjects were the black activist Marcus Garvey, black entertainer and dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and renowned black poet Countee Cullen. His work was rediscovered in 1967 by photographers and photo-historians, finally receiving attention far beyond his Harlem community.

Editors’ Tip: VanDerZee: Photographer 1886-1983

James VanDerZee was one of the great American photographers of the 20th century and the leading African-American photographer of his day. This first survey of his work in over 20 years includes his portraits for the first time as well as some new discoveries never before reproduced.

Featured image: VanDerZee: Photographer 1886-1983.

Coreen Simpson

A noted African-American photographer and jewelry designer, Coreen Simpson is best known for her portraits and performative documentary photography. She began as a photojournalist, covering political, cultural icons, musicians, athletes and special events in New York, the Middle East, Africa and Europe, moving onto fashion photography for magazines such as Vogue, Essence, Ms. Magazine and Paris Match.

She approached her subjects with dignity, revealing their depth of character. She is also noted for her studies of Harlem nightlife, documenting culture and people whose style she was drawn to. She also designed jewelry, most notably The Black Cameo Collection, featuring the ancient tradition of cameos, but with portraits of black women.

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