Deborah Willis, Curator
This exhibition project presents photographs and photo media based art work produced by black photographers. During most of photography’s early history, images produced by African Americans were idealized glimpses of family members in romanticized or dramatic settings. Most of these early photographs commemorated a special occasion in the sitter’s life, such as courtship, marriage, birth, death, graduation, confirmation, military service, anniversaries, or some social or political success. Early photographers also depicted genre scenes and landscapes, and created elaborated backdrops for studio portraits. Some owned and operated studios in small towns and major cities, while others worked as itinerants. They photographed the prosperous, laborers, and the poor, and they documented the activities of 19th century abolitionists. Their artistic legacy reflects the predominant styles and various techniques of 19th century American photography, including daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, stereographs, composite printing, and hand-coloring.
The images that survive convey a uniformity in style and approach, an intimacy, and a conscious effort on the part of the photographers to express naturalistic poses in interpreting the personality of their subjects. The images in this exhibition form a technical history of the medium as well as a pictorial history of African Americans. A few of the accomplished photographers found work photographing black and white leaders while others involved in studio portraits documented their local communities, skillfully making portraits for their sitters. Some of these photographers went beyond the commonplace standards and achieved an artistry and style that make their work stand out. As evidenced in this period, black photographers searched for both a particular style and a successful business. Their photographs visually realized the dreams and desires of their individual communities, which included a spirit of transformation contrasting the massed produced stereotypical images.
The exhibition is divided into three thematic sections: The First One Hundred Years, Art and Activism, and A History Deconstructed and examines how, throughout history, black photographers have played a central role in influencing the way in which African Americans visualized themselves. Reflections in Black, while not a comprehensive survey of the history of African American photographers, presents a context for reflecting on the works of many black photographers whose images weave an extremely rich and diverse collective cultural history.
NUMBER OF WORKS: 100 photographs in each thematic section
TOUR DATES: February 2000 - December 2003
SUPPORT MATERIALS: Publication, W.W. Norton, 2000