Photo Essay - African American Women and Photography
"Love and beauty–Sartjee the Hottentot Venus." Hand-colored etching, ca. 1811. Published by Christopher Crupper Rumford, 1811. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, reproduction number LC-USZ62-137332.
Prior to the birth of the daguerreotype, European and European American ethnographers produced sketches and drawings to illustrate the physiognomic differences of the darker races. These illustrations were far from faithful depictions of the people they encountered, and were often exaggerated in order to underscore the attributes they believed most validated their racist perceptions. Although Saartjie Baartman–who was nicknamed the Hottentot Venus when she became the first African woman to tour Europe as a scientific "oddity"–had a larger derriere than ever before seen by most Europeans, the racial biologists who "studied" her physique exaggerated its shape and size in their illustrations.
J. Barnett and Co. "Young Xosa [Xhosa] Woman in Costume; Wood Bowls and Gourd Container Nearby," ca. late nineteenth century. Courtesy of DOE Africa: South Africa: Nguni, Xosa 06048000, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
Photography dramatically altered not only the strategies for making racist images, but also enhanced their perceived veracity. Photography made it possible for ethnographers to make precise images of the bodies they encountered and made it easier for them to disseminate more of these images to a wider viewership, thus cementing their expertise in the field. Photography's approximation to reality convinced viewers that the camera-captured images were an objective equivalent of what photographers saw with their naked eye, rather than a mere likeness based on a subjective point of view. As a result, photographs became signifiers of truth and surrogates for reality.
L to R: W.E.B. Du Bois. African American girl, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number LC-USZ62-121109; W.E.B. Du Bois. African American girl with braided hair, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, 1899. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number LC-USZ62-121107.
Understanding that the relationship between photography and perceptions of reality was problematic for and posed a threat to the advancement of African Americans in the twentieth century, sociologist and pioneering critical race theorist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) issued a call for black artists to create a counter-archive contesting the caricatures that Europeans and European Americans had been producing for centuries. In his essay, "Criteria of Negro Art" (1926), he argues "that African American art must testify to African American identities, providing a record to challenge a long legacy of racist representation." To demonstrate aesthetic strategies that defied racist perceptions, he compiled a collection of formal portraits of southern middle-class African Americans from Georgia and other parts of the southern region. Many of these portraits directly quoted ethnographic images through the use of frontal and profile views, only in Du Bois's collection, the models were dressed in traditional late-Victorian era clothing, three-piece suits, and tea gowns. Titled "Types of American Negroes," the collection was exhibited for the first time at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Although his collection proposed an African American identity that represented only a small segment of the black population in the United States at the time, it still offered a much more complex alternative to the misrepresentations produced by white supremacist ideologues. The photographs set a new documentary standard for representing blackness in the twentieth century, influencing photographers for generations to come, many of them women who still have not received the same level of attention as their male counterparts, irrespective of ethno-racial background.
A survey of images made between the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the 1970s reveals that documentary photography was the preferred method for African Americans, and portraits and street scenes from black enclaves were the preferred subjects. After centuries of Europeans and European Americans telling their stories and making their images, reclaiming the record became a priority for African American photographers. Black photographic production during this era comprises one of the most important and yet seldom seen or referenced archives of black social, cultural, and political life in the United States. Despite these important developments, it was not until the 1970s that the mainstream art world finally recognized and embraced a black female photographic artist, Adrian Piper. At the same time, the content of and approach to photography changed radically. Conceptualism was the new movement sweeping through the art world as a whole, and in photography, practitioners were merging the medium with performance and text in ways created to destabilize photographic images, as well as language and the meaning we make from both.
Adrian Piper. "Mythic Being: I Embody," 1975; Courtesy of John Weber Gallery, collection of the artist.
Adrian Piper (b. 1948) is a first-generation conceptual artist and analytic philosopher who explored the intersection of moral philosophy with social and ethno-racial identities. Although an interdisciplinary artist, she frequently turned to photography to create discrete photographic objects and to document her provocative performances that exposed the gaps between visual perception and ethno-racial identities. A light-skinned, bi-cultural woman of unclear ancestry–her mother was Jewish and/or Caribbean and her father was of indeterminate ancestry though recognized as having some African lineage–she identified as black; however, many mistook her light skin tone for whiteness, and Piper capitalized on this ambiguity in her work. Born and raised in Manhattan and active during one of the most racially tense periods in New York's history, Piper understood the power and influence of photographs on public perceptions. She also understood that captions are one of the ways that audiences make sense of the photographs they see in newspapers and often accept the captions as accurate context for the images; therefore, pairing her images with seemingly incongruous captions would compel audiences to spend more time with the image and the message it transmits. She particularly understood the impact of exhibiting her racially ambiguous self-portraits with texts in which she confronts viewers with her blackness, sometimes in direct and belligerent ways, and other times in the most opaque ways. An example of this is her seminal project of the 1970s, "The Mythic Being," a durational performance (that is, performance art of a length beyond the typical 90 minutes) for which she masqueraded as the Mythic Being, a black man, and behaved antisocially in public spaces. A core element of the performance was a photo-text collage she published weekly in The Village Voice. Each week she used the same photograph, a portrait of the Mythic Being, but changed the confession in the thought bubble, which was transcribed from a journal she kept as the character.
Carrie Mae Weems. Plate 1 from "From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried," 1995–1996; 33 toned prints. Courtesy of the Jack Shainman Gallery and the artist.
Nearly two more decades passed before other black female photographic artists gained notoriety in the mainstream art world. The late 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of several talented women who merged conceptualism, performance, and photography to address race, gender, and class as political mechanisms. Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953) was born in a black enclave of Portland, Oregon, which would later become part of her first major project, "Environmental Portraits (1978)," a series of documentary style portraits taken in Portland, New York City, Mexico, and Fiji. In 1979, Weems enrolled in the B.F.A. program at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California, where she continued to document black American life. In 1982 she enrolled in the M.F.A. program at University of California, San Diego, where she worked under advisor Fred Lonidier, a conceptual photographer, sociologist, and early pioneer in photo-based social practice art. Deeply influenced by Lonidier's work, Weems became more interested in cultural history and its resonance through the present day. She specifically examined the political aura of seemingly innocuous cultural artifacts, particularly racist jokes and memorabilia that target African Americans, as seen in her project "Ain't Jokin" (1987–1988). She was also interested in the imperceptible residue from traumatic historical events that occurred in contact zones between African Americans and European Americans, particularly sites constructed by racial tensions and unbalanced power dynamics that ultimately favored white males. Examples of this work include "Not Manet's Type" (1997), "The Hampton Project" (2000), and "The Jefferson Suite" (2001). Like Adrian Piper, Weems created photo-text works, though Weems' employment of text was narrative, expanding the story she started in images. In many cases, such as in "From Here I Saw What Happened and I cried" (1995–1996), the audience must read the text in order to "read" the images and understand the work. In this particular piece, Weems appropriated historical images, from 19th-century ethnographic photographs to 20th-century press images with racial tones, and paired them with texts that she wrote. The words read like painful journal entries from someone who has just realized that she is a survivor of daily psychological assaults that will continue as long as people fail to recognize de jure and de facto racism's relationship with the creation and unmitigated public circulation of racist imagery, such as the photographs in the piece. By combining these images with her heartfelt text, Weems assists viewers in making this connection and rethinking the history and role of the visual in the sociopolitical sphere.
Lorna Simpson. "You're Fine," 1988; 4 color Polaroid prints, 15 engraved plastic plaques, 21 ceramic pieces (19 letters, 2 apostrophes). 40x103 in. overall. Courtesy of SALON 94 and the artist.
Lorna Simpson (b. 1960) was born in Brooklyn, New York where she continues to live and work. She earned a B.F.A (1983) in photography from the School of Visual Arts and an M.F.A. (1985) from University of California, San Diego, where Carrie Mae Weems was also studying at the time. Like Weems, Simpson started her career as a documentary street photographer. However, she later adopted a rigorous studio-based practice through which she constructed deceptively simple, large-scale, color photo-text installations to examine the ways in which race and gender function as interdependent political devices used to restrict African American women from full access to the rights and privileges enjoyed by the dominant citizenry. Working with large format Polaroid film, Simpson developed a signature style that included dressing her female models in basic white shift dresses and turning their backs to the cameras. In doing so, she defused the power of the gaze by denying its return from the model's side, underscoring that the body in the photograph possesses subjecthood (the political status of a full person), and that the audience, particularly white male viewers who dominate the spheres of political agency, has neither access to nor power over the model's subjecthood. She also would use multiples of one image within an installation, which, when combined with the other visual elements, confronts the presumed audience with the long-running myth that the African American community lacks diversity and forces them to consider whether the model is indeed the same person in each photograph. Like Adrian Piper and Carrie Mae Weems, Simpson employed text in her work; however, Simpson's use of text panels rather than photo-text collages suggests an interest in exploring how language has been used to frame the racial hierarchy and oppressive gender norms.
Renee Cox. "Olympia's Boyz," from The American Family Series, 2001; C-print. Courtesy of the artist.
Renee Cox (b. 1960) was born in Jamaica, but she grew up in Queens, New York, where her family relocated shortly after she was born. She earned a B.A. in film studies from Syracuse University, but pursued a career in fashion after graduating. She first worked as a fashion editor for Glamour magazine, then as a photographer for such magazines as the Paris-based Votre Beauté and Vogue Homme, and for New York-Based Seventeen, among others. After having her first son, she switched from commercial photography to fine art photography, and returned to school at Adrian Piper's alma mater, the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where she earned an M.F.A. in photography. From the beginning, Cox's mission was to subvert racial and gender stereotypes and present new visual representations of African Americans. She was particularly inspired by the eroticization of black bodies in the American cultural imagination. Unlike Du Bois, whose subjects dressed in the most modest yet fashionable clothes of the era, Cox confronted viewers with her sexuality. She serves as her own model in most of her photographs, often posing nude or in leather bondage costumes. She stares directly at the camera as if daring viewers to look at her as unabashedly as she is posed. Many of her images quote works by master painters, most notably Manet's "Olympia" (1863). However, in Cox's version, "Olympia's Boyz" (2001), she reclines on a skein of Congolese Kuba cloth, while her bi-racial sons stand by as her attendants, dressed as African warriors of an indeterminate nation, spears and head wraps included. Her implications touch all aspects of the encounter between Europe and Africa, but most specifically the sexual exchanges that developed as a result of that encounter. In replacing the original painting's black maid with her sons from an interracial marriage to a white man, she suggests that black sexuality is and has always been intertwined with white sexuality. She also suggests that the white masculine gaze represented by the vantage point in Manet's painting is as much about the sexual fantasies projected onto Olympia's black maid as it is about the fetishization of Olympia's porcelain white skin. Although Cox troubles the relationship between the white masculine gaze and black bodies–in other photographs from her "America Family" series, she also addresses fixations on black machismo and sexuality–there is a joyful and honorific tone in her photographs that suggest she celebrates black sexuality as something that African Americans should neither hide nor be ashamed of.
Cover of catalogue to the "Freestyle" exhibition, which opened at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001 and introduced the idea of post-blackness. Cover image is a still from Dave McKenzie's video "Edward and Me" (2000).
Within the last decade, terms such as "post-black," "post-racial," and "post-identity" have been circulating in sociopolitical and cultural spheres. While they each, to a degree, signify separate concepts, one can read them as synonyms. To be in a post-racial or post-identity moment is to have moved beyond blackness, as an ethno-racial distinction and as a political position. Although these terms gained traction during the 2008 U.S. Presidential election cycle, "post-black" entered the cultural lexicon in 2001 when Studio Museum in Harlem Director and Chief Curator Thelma Golden debuted "Freestyle." Composed of 28 emerging black artists working in a range of media, the exhibition proposed that the problem of the 21st century might no longer be the color line, but rather older generations of black cultural producers' seeming inability or unwillingness to move into a post-Civil Rights moment. There were those who latched on to the event, more specifically the term, as proof that the country had achieved colorblindness, just as many latched onto the election of President Barack Obama as a declaration of the end of racism; however, upon closer inspection of the artists included in the exhibition, one begins to understand that Golden was not declaring the end of race or racism, but the end of black representational space. Twenty-first century African American artists no longer felt obligated to represent the entirety of the black race and the totality of African American history in or with their artwork. While race and representation remain core aspects of this new work, today's artists are taking a more personal approach to exploring how identity, race, and representation operate in their lives. Twenty-first century photographers are working a mode that combines the documentary with the conceptual, blurring the narrative lines between fact and fiction to emphasize the fact that a photograph simultaneously is neither and both. Photography captures an actual event, but the final image bears the heavy hand of the artist behind the camera, from deciding what will appear in the frame and in focus to releasing the shutter and printing the final photograph.
Deana Lawson. "Roxie and Raquel," 2010; C-print, 35x45 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Deana Lawson (b. 1979) was born in Rochester, New York. She earned a B.F.A. in photography from Pennsylvania State University and an M.F.A. in photography from Rhode Island School of Design. She picked up the camera after discovering her voyeuristic tendencies and deep desire to see how a person's personal and social histories are written on the body and filter through to their environments, domestic and public. Though technically a portraitist, her photographs sit somewhere between documentary and appropriation, tableau and archive. While she ultimately chooses the mise-en-scène, Lawson discusses the options in detail with her subjects, allowing them to have input into the scene's construction. This exchange between her and the subjects, in some ways, makes her photography partly a social practice, and suggests that Lawson is invested in empowering her subjects to define beauty according to how they see themselves and how they desire the public to see them. In "Roxie and Raquel" (2010), Lawson reflects on the coercive power of black female stereotypes using strategies identified in Renee Cox's photography. This photo depicts the eponymous twin sisters whose contrasting attire and expressions reveal their different personalities, as well as how they may have internalized these stereotypes. One, dressed in lamé and stilettos, looks at the camera seductively; the other, dressed more modestly, looks at the camera subtly annoyed. From a black feminist standpoint, Euro-centric culture might label the former a hypersexual Jezebel stereotype, while it might label the latter an aggressive, emasculating Sapphire stereotype. On the other hand, the women might claim that one is sexually confident and the other is strong and independent; together they are sexy and fierce. Herein lies the image's power; Roxie and Raquel's twin-ness not only confirms the non-specificity of racial/gender stereotypes, but also illustrates how empowering it could be to lay claim to and redefine the stereotypes according to one's personal values. In essence, Deana Lawson's photography is about redefining, perhaps even correcting, visual culture, and making room for the multitude of black subjectivities she encounters in her quest to fulfill her voyeuristic desires.
Keisha Scarville. "Untitled," 2012; archival digital print, 24x24 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Keisha Scarville (b. 1975), born in Brooklyn, New York, earned a B.S. in photography from Rochester Institute of Technology. She turned to photography, in her own words, "out of a need to interpret and deconstruct reality." Similarly to some of Adrian Piper's earlier pieces, Scarville's work addresses memory, reality, and transformation of the physical and metaphysical bodies. One could also argue that she addresses movement between lived experiences and the traceable, though not necessarily visible, marks those experiences leave on the physical and spiritual realms. In "i am here," a project about the concept of home and belonging, Scarville attempts to make memories manifest in the corporeal plane with black and white images of sections of her body, as well as the marks her body has left on her actual house through apparent, deeply personal rituals, such as placing a row of pebbles between her feet on the floor. Much like Lorna Simpson, Scarville obscures views of the entire body and views of her domestic space, suggesting that one cannot truly be perceived without the other: a home or a place of belonging requires occupancy, and through finding and claiming a place to belong, an individual can ground herself in the world. The images' ethereal quality underscores the relationship between belonging and personhood, and their abstraction from the whole suggests that we are seeing glimpses of a ritual the subject performed to lay claim to a space that she discovered is her own. The theme of belonging and its relationship to personhood and subjectivity is woven throughout the African American experience of displacement and continuous dislocation. Scarville successfully elevates a single perspective from the millions that exist.
Suné Woods. "crossing," 2012; pigment print, 20x30 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Suné Woods (b. 1975) was born in Montréal, Québec, Canada, but grew up between South Florida and Ohio. She earned a B.F.A. in photography from the University of Miami, Coral Gables and earned an M.F.A. in photography from the California College of the Arts. Like many of her foremothers, Woods started her career as a photojournalist, shooting for The Washington Times, Newsday, and the now web-based Honey magazine. Like Renee Cox, Woods decided to pursue contemporary art after having her son. And much like Carrie Mae Weems, she is primarily interested in familial, cultural, and traumatic histories, and their impacts on individuals, communities, and the landscape. In her black-and-white series, "Bountiful Darkness," Woods explores the history of racially-motivated sexual violence in the Deep South and the landscape, using African American and European American male and female models that wear the same 1940s-era eyelet dress. In each image, the models are placed in the landscape in such a way that they seem to disappear into the surrounding foliage. For example, in one photograph a slightly blurred female figure stands in a wood hollow just on the edge of a swamp, but she remains partially in the shadows. Only the light color of the dress alerts the viewer to her presence. Even with the rich tonal values, daylight fails to seep into this location, heightening the sense that something traumatic, even horrifying, happened in that location and to that woman, who either peers across or into the impassable water, seemingly asking for help. By selecting an ethnically and gender diverse cast, and by placing them in the same costume, Woods flattens racial and gender hierarchies. She also reminds viewers that sexual violence committed against any group has a reverberating effect in the communities of both the victims and the perpetrators. Further, she reminds the audience that African American history is American history.
Kira Tippenhauer. "Four Points of Suspension," 2011; photography, mixed-media collage, 12x12 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Kira Tippenhauer (b. 1986) was born and raised in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She came to the U.S. for college, earning a B.A. in international relations from Elon University and an M.F.A. from Miami International University of Art and Design. Working primarily in photo collage, her work addresses the politics of visual representation and the codification of queered bodies, broadly defined. In small formats, Tippenhauer combines mutilated self-portraits with facsimiles of scientist/artist Ernst Haeckel's illustrations of animals and sea creatures, creating new "specimens" that a scientific racist like Haeckel might have created to support fallacious theories of polygenism, an 18th-century notion that humanity evolved from different species. Pieces of string tether her disembodied limbs to her collages' backboards, emphasizing the pseudo-scientific scrutiny queered bodies have endured over the centuries. Mounting these collages in shadowbox frames further suggests her investigation into the making of meaning and "the order of things" delineated by Western epistemological models, which are used to establish what knowledge is and how we come to know it. Although Tippenhauer only arrived in the United States in 2004, her position within the African diaspora reflects key changes occurring in the black arts and cultural landscape of the U.S. Many immigrant artists from Africa and the Caribbean are relocating to the U.S. or working between the U.S. and their home countries, mostly for political and economic reasons, thus shifting the experience of African diaspora from the abstract, where it has resided for centuries in the mainstream consciousness, to the concrete. Tippenhauer's case also reveals the diversity and complexity of African diasporans' relationships to blackness. Tippenhauer is a light-skinned black woman with long, wavy hair. Born in an ethnically ambiguous body and raised in a cultural landscape where her beige skin tone, and the privileges it granted, automatically re-classified her as blanc (French for "white" and Haitian code for not "African" or, at the most basic level, not black), she only discovered her blackness when she arrived in the U.S. Her situation, and that of many other immigrant artists, proposes the idea that blackness, and even the entire concept of race, might exist only in relation to whiteness, and is therefore only a construct.