Published by Christopher Crupper Rumford, 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.
Barnett and Co. 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.
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As a result, photographs became ifiers of truth and surrogates for reality. Du Bois.
African American girl, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front. African American girl with braided hair, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, 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. Du Bois — 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"he argues "that African American art must testify to African American identities, providing a record to challenge a long legacy of racist representation. 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 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 s and the s 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 s 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.
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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. Adrian Piper b. 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. 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 s, "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. 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.
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The late s and s 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. InWeems enrolled in the B. In she enrolled in the M. 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" — 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.
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" —the audience must read the text in order to "read" the images and understand the work.
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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. Lorna Simpson b. She earned a B. A in photography from the School of Visual Arts and an M. 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 ature style that included dressing her female models in basic white shift dresses and turning their backs to the cameras.
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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 personand 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 pd 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. Courtesy of the artist. Renee Cox b.
Photo essay - african american women and photography
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. 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" However, in Cox's version, "Olympia's Boyz"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 dating skin.
Although Cox troubles the relationship between the guys 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 and introduced the idea of post-blackness. 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, ify separate concepts, one can read them as black. 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 girls during the U. Presidential election cycle, "post-black" entered the cultural lexicon in when Studio Museum in Harlem Director and Chief Curator Thelma Golden debuted "Freestyle. 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 black 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 girls in the frame and in focus to releasing the shutter and Olympia the final photograph. Deana Lawson. Deana Lawson b. 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 dating.
Though technically a portraitist, her photographs sit somewhere between documentary and appropriation, tableau and archive. This exchange between her and the subjects, in some ways, makes her photography partly a social practice, and suggests that Lawson is invested Olympia empowering her subjects to define beauty according to how they see themselves and how they desire the public guys see them. In "Roxie and Raquel"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.