African American Women and Photography
Six times a year, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture, showing ways in which the past and present interact by offering specially commissioned featured essays, photographic essays, and a selected list of articles that will further guide the reader. The latest Focus On looks at the various ways in which black women have engaged with photography since the medium's inception.
In this insightful photo essay, artist, scholar, and curator crystal am nelson (Ph.D. student at the University of California-Santa Cruz) interrogates the complicated relationship between African American women and photography. nelson begins her essay in the 19th Century with an examination of supposedly anthropological depictions of African women and moves through W.E.B. Du Bois's photographic work to the late 20th Century, which witnessed a surge of interest in the photographic medium. She concludes the piece with a discussion of a number of contemporary artists who are making important contributions to our evolving understanding of the intersections of race, class, gender, and culture. nelson's thought-provoking arguments move beyond mere art history, into the spheres of science, history, and politics.
While the essay necessarily discusses a variety of challenging ideas, it is also quite accessible to the general reader. nelson employs a clear, openly critical tone, and does not hesitate to oppose the photographic practice of African American women to prevailing power structures. Her feminist critique, which draws on the work of renowned African American scholars such as Angela Davis, Deborah Willis, and Patricia Hill-Collins, provides a compelling interpretation of a number of fascinating works of art.
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Through portraits, etchings, collages, and photographs, scholar crystal am nelson considers the wide range of experiences that photography has afforded African American women.
DISCLAIMER: Some of the following images contain partial nudity and may not be appropriate for younger or more sensitive readers. However, the editors of AASC feel that this content is both culturally significant and crucial to the author's thesis.
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(Access to the following articles is available only to subscribers.)
The following entries have been selected to help guide readers who want to understand more about the history of African American artistic expression, particularly as it relates to women.
Primary Source Documents