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.

A woman zipping her dress by a door

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

Clarence Gatson

Polaroid photograph of a young Black boy striking an Egyptian style pose

Ray Francis

A woman sitting at a round table with flowers and a glass of wine

John Shearer

Don Hogan Charles

A young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sitting on the sidelines of a basketball game with a trophy

Coreen Simpson

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

Chester Higgins Jr.

A young girl dressed as Princess Leia on a playground with other children

Adger Cowans

A man in a hat and sweater with many people's hands framing his face

Florestine Perrault Collins

A portrait of a young woman in a period dress looking down

Gordon Parks

A young girl holding books at the entrance of a raised shack in Puerto Rico

Woodard's Studio

A very aged photograph of a group of women around a table

Ernest C. Withers

Tony Rhoden

A man in a suit and hat aiming an old film camera

Kwame Brathwaite

Carrie Mae Weems

One woman brushing another woman's hair at a table, there are two glasses of wine on the table

Moneta Sleet Jr.

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

Anthony Barboza

A close-up portrait of Aretha Franklin with her head tilted back

Beuford Smith

Two jazz players with the standup bass in silhouette

James L. Allen

A group of six people sitting and standing, facing the camera

Shawn Walker

A man and a woman in the reflection of a fish-eye mirror

James Barnor

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

Ming Smith

Two women dressed up and sitting on a bench

Eli Reed

A woman, man, and their young son

James Presley Ball

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

Bobby Holland

A group portrait of Earth Wind and Fire in costume

Louis Draper

A portrait of a young man alone in a room with a hat and chain

Al Fennar

A picture of a man in black walking against a white wall

Michelle V. Agins

A picture of a soldier breaking down in tears at a memorial day celebration

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