Featured Essay - African American Women and Photography

When one speaks about photography, one also speaks about identity and representation; the power that pictures have over the social sphere; and the ways that race, gender, and class influence how and what people see in the world. These truths apply to the person who stands behind the camera as much as they do to who stands in front of the lens. Since the inception of photography, African Americans have worked in the medium in order to wrest control of their images from those who have used the art form to objectify them. This is particularly true in the case of black women, whose sociopolitical position has been and remains in jeopardy due to their bodies being an intersection of beliefs about race, gender, class, and sexuality (Davis, p. 165). As the most hypervisible of under-recognized people, black women are most often discussed in terms of their physical attributes (such as the size of their buttocks, the texture of their hair, and the depth of their skin tones) and their sexuality and temperament. (Collins, p. 69–97). To put it simply, "the black woman's body is always public, always exposed" (Henderson, p. 3), while black female subjectivities–their experiences, beliefs, and perspectives–are always out of sight and out of order (Piper, 1996).

The legacy of racist representation of blacks is a primary contributing factor to this dynamic. As such, their role in the development of a "counter-archive" is crucial to understanding why photography and the world of images has become a primary battle zone in the culture wars. Yet, despite major efforts by such photographic scholars as Deborah Willis and Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, the history of black female photographers remains under-studied and under-recognized.

In the first decade of the form's existence, all fifty of the documented African American daguerreotypists were male (Willis, 2000, p. 4); however, there is evidence suggesting that in many cases, women–the photographers' wives and daughters–were responsible for developing, printing, and finishing the photographs after they were captured to plates. It is now known that black women have been independently practicing photography since the 1860s. Much like their male peers, these early photographers worked mainly in portraiture and documentary modes, faithfully and respectfully capturing the diversity of African Americans in appearance, lifestyle, and personal values. These images were a stark contrast to the ethnographic images, photographic and illustrated, coming out of Europe in the 19th century and earlier.

[Editor's note: nelson's essay continues here. Please be aware that the following photo essay contains partial nudity.]

Further Reading

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought (2000).

Davis, Angela Y. Women, Race & Class (1983).

Henderson, Carol E. Imagining the Black Female Body: Reconciling Image in Print and Visual Culture (2010).

Moutoussamy-Ashe, Jeanne. Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers (1986).

Piper, Adrian. Out of Order, Out of Sight: Selected Writings in Meta-Art, Vol. 1 (1996).

Willis, Deborah. Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the present (2000).

--------------. The Black Female Body: A Photographic History (2002).

crystal am nelson