Nicole L. Cvetnic is The Root’s multimedia editor and producer.
Photography is a medium of personal expression and exploration. It provides us with a way to observe and reflect upon life. Through their own unique styles, these 17 photographers focused their lenses on the African-American experience to produce rare glimpses into the worlds of identity, beauty, race relations, civil rights and urban life.
Parks, born in 1912, was the first African-American photographer hired at Life and Vogue magazines. Focusing on race relations, civil rights, poverty and urban life, his body of work documented controversial aspects of American culture from the early 1940s until his death in 2006. He was a self-taught artist who purchased his first camera at the age of 25.
Carrie Mae Weems
The body of Weems’ visual work explores “unrequited love” and the human condition through race, gender and class. “At the end of the day, it has a great deal to do with the breadth of the humanity of African Americans who are usually stereotyped and narrowly defined and often viewed as a social problem,” she said. Weems, born in 1953, launched what has become a more-than-30-year photo career in 1974 after receiving a 35 mm camera for her birthday.
Best known for fashionable portraits of African Americans amid the New York City nightlife scene of the 1980s and depictions of b-boy dress and music, Simpson, born in 1942, has had her work featured in the Village Voice and several fashion magazines. She has also worked as a jewelry designer throughout her photography career. “Clothes and jewelry have always been very important to me in observance of how people present themselves because that’s empowerment. Everything I do is about self-presentation and empowerment,” she said. Simpson started an accessory sensation when she created black-and-white cameos featuring the profile of a black woman.
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Moutoussamy-Ashe, born in 1951, credits her artistic beginnings to her architect father and interior design mother. She was introduced to the camera by a family friend at the age of 18 and went on to study with renowned photographer Garry Winogrand. Her work is autobiographical, and the images speak from her point of view. Moutoussamy-Ashe believes that photography holds the potential to bring about social change through awareness.
Born in 1960 in Brooklyn and raised in that New York City borough, the “street photographer” has been documenting the pioneers of music and style for more than 30 years. Shabazz, who discovered the camera at the age of 15, identifies the work of James Van Der Zee, Robert Capa, Chester Higgins, Gordon Parks and Eli Reed as inspiration. “He did with pictures what rappers did with words,” hip-hop historian Bill Adler said. “He took everyday people and turned them into icons.”
James Presley Ball
Born a free man in Virginia in 1825, Ball learned daguerreotyping and opened his first studio in Cincinnati at the age of 20. He gained notoriety after publishing an anti-slavery pamphlet in 1855 depicting the devastating consequences of slavery. By the 1850s he had photographed Frederick Douglass and Ulysses S. Grant, among others. He died in 1904.
Reed, born in 1946, is a self-taught photographer who began as a freelancer in 1970. His work from El Salvador, Guatemala and other Central American countries attracted the attention of the premier photo agency Magnum in 1982. Reed became a full member in 1988. He is best-known for his 1997 book Black America, which documents more than 20 years of what it means to be African American.
James Van Der Zee
The Harlem Renaissance photographer, who captured the arts, music, celebrities and culture of the time, is celebrated for his pioneering photography and for his glamorous, detailed portraits of the emergent African-American middle class of the 1920s and ’30s. Born in 1886, Van Der Zee developed a passion for photography in his youth, opening his own Harlem studio in 1916. He died of a heart attack in 1983.
“One of the things that got to me was that I felt that black people were not being portrayed in a serious and in an artistic way,” DeCarava said. Born in 1919 and raised in Harlem, the trained painter began his photo career by gathering images to use in his printmaking work. He eventually gravitated toward photography after seeing the limitations of black artists in a segregated society. DeCarava, who died in 2009, became one of the most renowned photographers of his generation by capturing images that conveyed powerful cultural content. His subjects included the jazz scene of the 1950s and ’60s as well as the social inequities of the 1960s and ’70s.
Moneta Sleet Jr.
Best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the funeral of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil-rights-era photographer captured defining images of the struggle for racial equality in the United States and Africa. Born in 1926, Sleet got his first box camera as a child but did not consider becoming a professional photographer until he went to college. When Coretta Scott King learned that there were no black photographers covering her husband’s funeral, she made it known that if Sleet was not given access, there would be no photographers in the church. Sleet, who died in 1996, was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.
Scurlock, born in 1883, came to Washington, D.C., from Fayetteville, N.C., in 1900. After apprenticing with white photographer Moses Rice, he opened a small studio in his parents’ house. In 1911 he opened his own studio on U Street in the heart of the District’s African-American community. According to historian Jeffrey Fearing, who is also a relative of Scurlock’s, he eventually earned the title of black Washington’s “photographic Boswell—the keeper of the visual memory of the community in all its quotidian ordinariness and occasional flashes of grandeur and moment”—by documenting significant events in his community. Scurlock died in 1964.
John H. White
At just 13 years old, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, born in 1945, bought his first camera with 50 cents and 10 Bazooka-gum wrappers. White’s first assignment came when the family church burned down. His father asked him to photograph its rebuilding, and from then on he was hooked. Celebrated for images capturing the heart and soul of humanity, White has photographed greats such as Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali and President Barack Obama. “I don’t know any other profession where one can get into the hearts and lives of anybody other than a camera. The camera’s that universal passport. And I love it,” he said.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1960, Simpson came to prominence as a street photographer in the mid-1980s. As her style evolved, she became known for merging classical beauty with provocative politics. Her conceptual work of African-American women examines culture, political and social themes through pictures and text. Simpson said that she explores how “gender and culture shape the interactions, relationships and experiences of our lives in contemporary multiracial America.”
Born in 1898, Prentice Hall Polk began his career at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he studied under photographer C.M. Battey. He later became the school’s official photographer, capturing images of visitors such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali. His portraits recorded both the successful black middle class as well as the lives of poor rural workers and sharecroppers in the South during the 1930s. Polk exemplified the shadow-side technique and often tried to de-emphasize the celebrity of his well-known subjects to capture “the picture that I felt within myself.” He died in 1984.
Born in Mississippi in 1939, Bingham had no formal photography training. His education came when he started working as a photographer at The Sentinel, a small, black-owned newspaper in Los Angeles. One of his first assignments was to photograph heavyweight fighter Cassius Clay. That assignment turned into a lifelong friendship with the boxer, who became Muhammad Ali, and an eventual position as Ali’s personal biographer.
In addition to her photo work, Willis is a well-known historian and curator of African-American photography and culture. Born in 1948 and growing up in Eatonville, Fla., she credits her artistic beginnings to reading a library copy of Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes’ The Sweet Flypaper of Life in the early 1960s. It was the first time she had seen photographs of black people, and it changed her life. Her subjects focus on present-day African Americans and their constructions of identity and image.
Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris
Harris, born in 1908, grew up in Pittsburgh and worked most of his career as a photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation’s pre-eminent black newspapers. His work from the 1930s captures the joys and struggles of the urban African-American experience. Though most of his work focused on documenting the working class, Harris occasionally photographed big names like Louis Armstrong and John F. Kennedy. He died in 1998.