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History of African American Photography Essay

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Example Essay on History of African American Photography

The first slave ship, whose name is unknown to historical record, arrived on the shores of America in 1609. The first 20 Africans who arrived in America, delivered on by Captain Joe and his crew, were virtually unaware of what their destiny entailed. These innocent Africans were stolen from their homeland in order to meet their fate as slave workers in colonial America. From the first moment that they stepped foot onto American soil, these Africans were treated as savages and were oppressed. These Africans, and the millions who were to follow close behind, experienced anything but freedom, equality, and justice in America, the land of the free.

Since the beginning of the African American struggle, black people have risen up against the oppression and inequality that American society has faced them with. The African American community has given a tenacious fight to achieve equality as a people since their first days in America. From slave ship revolts, to slave uprisings and attempted insurrections, to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, black people have not relented in their fight for freedom. Not only have the African American people continued to fight for justice for over 300 years, but they have also done their best to document this struggle. One way in which black people have documented their history as Americans has been though the eye of the camera.

Believe it or not, African American photography has a long-standing history in America. In 1840, just one year after the process was invented, Jules Lion (a free African American in New Orleans) began producing daguerreotypes. Using the work of Lion as their inspiration, other African Americans, such as Augustus Washington, James Presley Ball, and Daniel Freeman, began to develop the field of photography further. (http://www.absolutearts.com/artsnews/2001/07/11/28840.html). As the field of photography progressed technologically over the years, so did the material being shot by African American photographers. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960Тs encouraged a major change in the subject matter of these photographers. The question that this paper will address is: How did the Civil Rights Movement, acting as an inspiration for social change in all aspects of African American life, effect the field of African American photography?

Before the Civil Rights Movement, black photographers were simply looked at as social documenters. The changes that the Civil Rights Movement brought to the African American experience, allowed them to move on away from their limited role as photojournalists and into their role as artists. Since the Civil Rights Movement, they have been able to continue their legacy of documentation while also expressing themselves more freely as artists. The use of symbolism and communicative imagery has allowed black photographers of recent decades to value the photograph as a document, while also looking at it as a metaphor.

African American photographers were highly involved in developing the field of photography during its first 100 years of existence, from about 1843 to 1942. Many freedmen of this time period, such as Augustus Washington, James Presley Ball, and Daniel Freeman, realized the power that this medium entailed. Black photographers of this time period looked at photography as a way to purely and realistically represent the African American experience.

The creators of 19th century family portraits focused their lens on humankind, and thus successfully documented the humanity of the African American people. This is why their portraits have become a strong source for the study of slavery and race. (http://www.seeingblack.com/x062901/reflections.shtml). One example of this testimonial photography is James Presley Ball’s Portrait of a Hanging. (See fig. 1.) This photograph helped to illustrate Ball’s firm interest in documenting the oppressive experience of the African Americans.

As distinguished in the C.M. BatteyТs photographs of significant African American figures, black photographers in the early part of the last century were especially interested in documenting their people through the use of portraiture. In creating these portrait images, the photographers of this time were not interested in adding any elements of artistic expression to their work. Consequently, Battey’s portraits of Fredrick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, and Booker T. Washington held the simple purpose of recording the presence of these leaders. (See fig. 2.) These portraits are part of what is called the “New Negro” movement in the study of African American photography. The “New Negro” image was a innovative way of representing the black experience. Instead of representing black people as ignorant, slothful, and without work ethic, the photographers of this time developed optimistic impressions of the black community through their work. (http://www.africana.com/Articals/tt_788.htm).

During the 1930’s the field of African American photography experienced a Great Migration of its own. This migration dealt with the moving of black photographers into their role as photojournalists for local newspapers and national magazines. The photojournalists of this time period (1930Тs Ц 1960Тs) were highly concerned with documenting public and political events. The political turbulence of this era allowed black photojournalists to express their attitudes toward the ideas being discussed and debated (such as the laws of Jim Crow). Gordon Parks was a significant photojournalist of this time, and he was first employed as a photographer at the Farm Services Administration. There he helped to document “the plight of the needy during the depression and to create a historical record of social and cultural conditions across the country.” (http://www.tfaoi.com/newsm1/n1m673.htm). ParksТ photograph, entitled American Gothic (1942), successfully documented the irony of the African American experience up to this point in history. (See Fig 3). In this image, Parks used abrupt symbolism to convey his message about the social situation of African Americans. On commenting about this piece, Parks stated:

“What the camera had to do was expose the evils of racism, the evils of poverty, the discrimination and the bigotry, by showing the people who suffered the most under it. That was the way it had to be done” The photograph of the black cleaning woman standing in front of the American flag with a broom and a mop expresses more than any other photograph I have taken.” (Black Photographers Bear Witness: 100 Years of Social Protest.)

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960Тs, black photographers documented the public and political events of the time, while also communicating the African American perception concerning these events through the use of symbolism. The goal of the Civil Rights Movement was to bring an end to the institutionalized concept of “separate but equal” that was instilled in the system by the United States Supreme Court case Plessey Vs. Ferguson (http://www.multiracial.com/government/plessy.html.) Black photographers of the 1960’s worked to capture the struggles, the hardships, and the effects of this movement on film. African American photographers worked to create Уa collective biography of African American people that would empower them in their struggle for civil rights.” (http://www.carlagirl.net/exhibs.reflectshow.html). Not only did they document the political, social, and economic struggle of the African American people of this decade, but they also showed, through the use of symbolism, the meaning behind the movement.

An effective example of how symbolism was used intermittently with documentation during the Civil Rights Movement is Moneta Sleet Jr.Тs photograph of the Selma March in Alabama. (See Fig. 4). This photograph recorded the march as an event of the movement, while also showing the power behind the actual experience of the demonstration. The American flag (worn by one of the African American marchers), the freedom song, and the march itself are all symbols illustrated in this work. Martin Luther King, Jr., a predominate leader of the Civil Rights Movement, believed the freedom songs to be at the soul of the movement. “The songs add hope to our determination that “we shall overcome, black and white, we shall over come someday.” (Black Photographers Bear Witness: 100 Years of Social Protest.) Since the Freedom song was such an important aspect the movement, Sleet choose to use this image as a source of documentation for the event.

After years of social protest, marches, and boycotts, African Americans finally achieved their goal of dissolving segregation of the races with the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. (http://www.blackhistory.eb.com/micro/129/79.html). This achieved integration allowed black people to attain greater freedoms as a race in all aspects of livelihood. As a result, black photographers began to stray from their roles as photojournalists. The 1970’s and 80’s brought, for the first time, artistic expression to the work of the African American photographer. The photographers of this time still looked at the photographic image as a document, but also looked at it as a metaphor.

The goal of the photographers during the last two decades has been to expose the conceptions of race and gender that are held in our society and bring a distinct awareness of the black experience through their art. The images created in the 80’s and 90’s offer sociological and psychological insights into black history. The photographers of this section cross the photographic image with other forms of media in order to “challenge the viewer’s assumptions about artistic authority and authenticity.” Through using the photographic image as a metaphor for higher meanings, fine art photographers of recent decades have allowed new questions to be asked about the black experience being represented. (http://www.carlagirl.net/exhibs.reflectshow.html).

Carrie Mae Weems is one of the photographers of this time period who uses symbolism in her images to create visual metaphors. Her photograph titled “As a Child I Loved the Aroma of Coffee” (taken in 1988) is a prime example of using symbols to tell a story of greater meaning. (See Fig. 5). In the center of this image sits a coffee cup and a coffee pot, whose steel surface creates reflection of the room’s environment. At a viewer’s first glance he or she would not take much meaning away from this image, but a second look reveals a small textual insert in the upper right-hand corner of the piece. This text reads:

“As a child I loved the aroma of coffee. Smelling it drove me nuts cuz it reminded me of cocoa, of chocolate, candy. Anyway, my parents rarely drunk coffee. But when they did, Id stand at the kitchen table begging like a salivating dog for a lick. Momma and daddy would be sitting up, elbows on table, talking, sipping like white folks on t.v. Shooing me away with, “Ya don’t need no coffee, coffee’ll make ya black.”

This image gives insight to the artists past experience as a black person trying to grow-up in a white man’s world. The ignorance of the child and the unsophisticated language in this passage indicate a feeling of racial inferiority. For Weems, a reflective coffee pot symbolizes her personal struggle as a black American and the oppression of her people. While this piece still acts as a document of this oppression, it also uses the abstract capabilities of fine art to reveal her message.

The artistic images that are produced by African American photographers today would have never existed if the Civil Rights Movement had not endorsed major social changes in American society. As a result of the African American struggle for equality during the 60’s, African American’s of today are free to explore the field of photography beyond the boundaries of photojournalism. Despite the fact that some of photography’s principle founders were in fact African American’s, it was not until the passing of the Civil Rights Act that African Americans were given a fair and equal opportunity to succeed as fine art photographers. As a result of the Civil Rights Act the public school system was integrated, and black people were thus given better opportunities to study the art behind taking photographs. During the last few decades, black photographers have used their new role as artists to express the black experience with symbolic imagery. Today the photograph is no longer a mere a tool for documenting the African American struggle; now the photograph is used as an artistic metaphor, which is used to insightfully explain and clarify the meaning of this struggle.

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