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The Black Photographers Who Paved The Way For The World We Live In Now

Their photographs show a world we’ve left behind, and highlight the importance of legacy and holding on to your history.

Posted on February 23, 2021, at 12:07 p.m. ET

A woman zipping her dress by a door
The Estate of Hugh Bell, courtesy Gartenberg Media Enterprises

"Early morning, 1964." Hugh Bell was an American photographer from New York, best known for his jazz photographs.

Over the last century, as photography as a medium grew in popularity and decreased in price, people from every walk of life picked up cameras to document their surroundings. For many Black photographers who spent years or decades documenting the day-to-day lives of their communities, these records care more weight than ever due to a history of racism and neglect from larger, mostly white archival institutions like museums and libraries.

"[I] can only guess that the lack of diversity in curatorial positions is a contributing factor to these photographers not being properly supported and exhibited in the larger, more established cultural institutions that have been long resistant to change,” said Michael Mery, the acting curator of the photographs and prints division at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a research center of the New York Public Library located in Harlem. The institution is dedicated to preserving historic records of Black culture. His division holds over 300,000 images from more than 200 photographers, from the mid-19th century to contemporary documentary and art photography.

The collection, which dates from the mid-19th century, includes the cased ambrotypes of future educator and civil rights activist Maritcha Lyons and her sister Pauline as young girls in a family of free Blacks living in pre–Civil War New York. The library also contains a group portrait of a Baptist women’s gathering in Chicago, circa 1930, with civil and women’s rights activists Mary McLeod Bethune, Nannie Burroughs, and Ida B. Wells in attendance, and James Latimer Allen’s “Brown Madonna,” a copy of which graced the December 1941 issue of Opportunity magazine. These images are special in part because seeking out and preserving African American culture wasn’t always a high priority for institutions across the country. Many are now trying to correct former missteps. The Whitney, which was criticized for their acquisition of the work of Black photographers through a print sale, currently has an exhibit featuring the legendary Kamoinge Workshop.

“The culture of systemic racism in historical and archival institutions continues to not be fully addressed, despite the great passion and show of support for this past summer’s protests,” said Mery. He points to recent articles regarding the “tone deaf” director’s job posting at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the slow response to implementing staff diversity, equity, and inclusion proposals at some major city art museums, which indicates that there is still a persistent problem within the system of white-dominated art institutions. “I can not say if it is strictly an issue of institutional budgets, Eurocentrism, or just white entitlement. I’d rather not think that it will require another BLM moment to wake these institutions up; rather, I would hope that these places will eventually hold a mirror up and call themselves out.”

The incredible breadth of material at the Schomburg Center is available to the public and free to use for anyone with an internet connection. It is available, as Mery told us, “for personal discovery, visual reference of significant individuals and events, and to appreciate the struggles and accomplishments of an important group of American people still striving for proper recognition for their history and influence … We encourage the public to investigate further what we have to offer them.”

Creating an extensive and comprehensive list of every Black photographer who made contributions in the last century would be a massive task. Hundreds more photographers like James Van Der Zee, Morgan and Marvin Smith, Roy DeCarava, and Jamel Shabazz made huge contributions to photography as we know it today as well. We collected a sampling of just a few of the many Black photographers whose work shaped our understanding of the 20th century and who continue to inspire photographers today.


Robert Abbott Sengstacke

A sea of nuns all dressed in white
Robert Abbott Sengstacke / Getty Images

Sengstacke was a photojournalist for the Chicago Defender who documented life during the Civil Rights Movement.

Clarence Gatson

Polaroid photograph of a young Black boy striking an Egyptian style pose
Clarence Gatson / Getty Images

Gatson was a photojournalist at the Sun Reporter in the Bay Area between 1975 and 1992.

Ray Francis

A woman sitting at a round table with flowers and a glass of wine
Ray Francis via The Whitney

Francis is an artist and a member of New York's Kamoinge Workshop.

John Shearer

John Shearer / Getty Images

Portrait of American heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali, in a tuxedo, ruffled yellow shirt, and bowtie, as he poses with his arms crossed, 1971. The portrait was taken prior to his first bout with Joe Frazier, where he unsuccessfully battled for the title belt on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden. Shearer was a photojournalist who began working at Look magazine at the age of 20.

Don Hogan Charles

A young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sitting on the sidelines of a basketball game with a trophy
Don Hogan Charles / DON HOGAN CHARLES/The New York T

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (center), then known as Lewis Alcindor, with the basketball and trophy he was awarded after breaking a high school record in New York, March 7, 1965. Charles, who was the first Black photographer to be hired by the New York Times, and who drew acclaim for his evocative shots of the civil rights movement and everyday life in New York.

Coreen Simpson

A young man in profile with sunglasses and a kangol hat on
Coreen Simpson

"Jamien at the Roxy, NYC (B-Boy Series)," 1985. Simpson is a New York–based photographer who began taking photographs of celebrities in the 1970s and traveled extensively for her work.

Chester Higgins Jr.

A young girl dressed as Princess Leia on a playground with other children
Chester Higgins Jr. /The New York Times

A Princess Leia on the playground at St. Luke's School in New York, Oct. 31, 1977. Higgins Jr. was a staff photographer at the New York Times for over 40 years.

Adger Cowans

A man in a hat and sweater with many people's hands framing his face
Adger Cowans / Getty Images

Portrait of Jamaican-born dancer and choreographer Garth Fagan, surrounded by hands, in the late 1990s. Cowans was born in Ohio, but moved to New York and became one of the original photographers and members of the Kamoinge Workshop.

Florestine Perrault Collins

A portrait of a young woman in a period dress looking down
Florestine Perrault Collins

A self-portrait of Collins, an early portrait photographer in New Orleans

Gordon Parks

A young girl holding books at the entrance of a raised shack in Puerto Rico
Gordon Parks / Getty Images

Girl standing in the door of a house in San Juan, Puerto Rico, November 1954. Parks was a legendary photographer, musician, writer, and film director whose career in photography took off in the 1940s.

Woodard's Studio

A very aged photograph of a group of women around a table
Woodard's Studio / New York Public Library

Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B. Wells, Nannie Burroughs, and other women at Baptist Women's gathering, Chicago, circa 1930. Woodard's Studio was a commercial photographer who operated studios on Chicago's South Side, in New York, and in Kansas City in the early 20th century.

Tony Rhoden

A man in a suit and hat aiming an old film camera
Robert Abbott Sengstacke / Getty Images

Portrait of American photographer Tony Rhoden (born Herman Rhoden, 1920–1991) as he aims a camera, 1963. Rhoden was a veteran Chicago photojournalist, who worked with Robert Abbott Sengstacke — who took this photograph of his colleague and friend.

Kwame Brathwaite

Kwame Brathwaite

Brathwaite is an American photojournalist known for his work Harlem and Africa. This is an image of his wife, Sikolo Braithwaite, wearing a headpiece designed by Carolee Prince.

Carrie Mae Weems

One woman brushing another woman's hair at a table, there are two glasses of wine on the table
© Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Weems is a photographer and artist based in Syracuse. This image, from "Kitchen Table Series," is an early and important work.

Moneta Sleet Jr.

Coretta Scott King wears all black and a veil while holding her daughter
Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

Coretta Scott King comforts her youngest daughter Bernice, 5, during Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral services in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, April 9, 1968. Sleet Jr. was an American press photographer and staff photographer for Ebony magazine.

Anthony Barboza

A close-up portrait of Aretha Franklin with her head tilted back
Anthony Barboza / Getty Images

Portrait of American singer and musician Aretha Franklin, 1971. Barboza is a Black photographer and historian from New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Beuford Smith

Two jazz players with the standup bass in silhouette
Beauford Smith via The Whitney

Smith is a photographer who began working in the 1970s. He is also a member of the Kamoinge Workshop.

James L. Allen

A group of six people sitting and standing, facing the camera
James L. Allen / New York Public Library

"Nella Larsen and others," 1928. James L. Allen was a photographer who is known for his images of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s.

Shawn Walker

A man and a woman in the reflection of a fish-eye mirror
Shawn Walker via The Whitney

Walker is a photographer from Harlem, New York.

James Barnor

A woman in a dress and purse in front of a moving bus
James Barnor

Barnor is a Ghanaian photographer who has been photographing for over 60 years.

Ming Smith

Two women dressed up and sitting on a bench
Ming Smith via The Whitney

Ming Smith is a photographer based in New York and an early member of the Kamoinge Workshop. Her work is held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and others.

Eli Reed

A woman, man, and their young son
Eli Reed / Magnum Photos

Shaker Heights, Ohio. 1999. A middle-class Black family. Reed is an American photographer and photojournalist. He was the first full-time Black photographer employed by Magnum Photos.

James Presley Ball

A portrait of James Presley Ball with a long beard, wearing a jacket
Public Domain

Ball was a photographer, abolitionist, and entrepreneur. He worked primarily in Ohio during his lifetime.

Bobby Holland

A group portrait of Earth Wind and Fire in costume
© Bobby Holland / mptvimages.com

Earth, Wind & Fire (Verdine White, Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, Roland Bautista, Andrew Woolfolk, Johnny Graham), 1981. Holland has been a Los Angeles–based portrait photographer for decades.

Louis Draper

A portrait of a young man alone in a room with a hat and chain
Louis Draper / The Whitney

Draper is a photographer and was a part of the Kamoinge Workshop in the early 1960s.

Al Fennar

A picture of a man in black walking against a white wall
Albert R. Fennar courtesy of Miya Fennar

Bowery, 1967. Fennar was also a member of the Kamoinge Workshop, who became interested in photography in the US Air Force.

Michelle V. Agins

A picture of a soldier breaking down in tears at a memorial day celebration
Michelle V. Agins / The New York Times

Vietnam veteran Stephen Smallwood is overcome with emotion during the playing of "Taps" at the Kings County Memorial Day Parade in Fort Hamilton Park, Brooklyn, on Memorial Day, 2001. Agins began her career in photography as an intern for the Chicago Daily News and is currently a staff photographer at The New York Times.



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