Reading the subtitle, A History of Black Photographers , one may expect an equivalent to Lewis W. Hine’s Children at Work, but the book by Deborah Willis – a curator of photography at the Smithsonian Institution who has earlier taught photography and the history of photography at New York University, the City University of New York and the Brooklyn Museum – offers quite a different content. Reflections in Black does not mainly document the misery of black men in America through the works of African-American photographers. The images of pride, dignity, beauty and success show that the black photographers were not obsessed with race, racism and documenting the Jim Crow system. Their work is largely a recognition of the cultural contributions of African Americans to American society in sports, music, dance, literature, politics and a celebration of black social and economic life.
This first comprehensive history of black photographers by Deborah Willis illustrates the work of African American photography from 1840 to the present. Just one year after the daguerreotype was invented in 1939, Jules Lion, “a freeman of colour”, opened a studio in New Orleans. Rapidly, hundreds of free men and women established themselves as professional photographers, documenting, independently from each other, life in their communities. From the very beginning, these photographers used the camera to reclaim their people’s experiences and lives, giving their people both humanity and individuality, resisting all the pressure on and stereotypes about African Americans. The nearly 600 photographs assembled by Willis document black life from the last generation of slaves to the present day.
Among the hundreds of famous and unknown African American photographers presented are James Presley Ball, C. M. Battey, Allen E. Cole, Gordon Parks, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Prentice H. Polk, Robert L. Haggins, Robert McNeill, Chuck Stewart and James VanDerZee, on whom Willis has published the mono-graphic VanDerZee: The Portraits of James VanDerZee (1993) .
Jules Lion (1810-1866) was a forerunner and one of fifty documented black daguerrotypists who successfully operated galleries in American cities. Lion had moved to New Orleans from his native France in 1837. Originally a lithographer and portrait painter, he had exhibited at the Exposition of Paris in 1833, where he was awarded an honorable mention for one of his lithographs. In 1841, he co-founded an art school in New Orleans and from 1852 to 1865, he listed as a professor of drawing at the College of Louisiana. Lion exhibited his first daguerrotypes in New Orleans in 1840. None of them survived.
In contrast to Lion, James Presley Ball (1825-1904/05?) and Augustus Washington (1820-75) were politically engaged abolitionists. They “used their photographic skills to expose the abhorrent institution of slavery by promoting antislavery activities. Ball was a free black man, a photographer and a businessman who “created a moving account of black life for the sole purpose of lecturing on the brutality of the institution.”
In the 19th century, technical and commercial limitations made black photographers succeed mostly at portraiture and studio photography rather than at creating news, industrial and landscape images. Willis has selected the best examples of surviving works of the mid-nineteenth-century photographers and has assembled biographical information on all known photographers. The twentieth-century section of Reflections in Black serves, in Willis’ own words, “as a visual record of not only social concerns of the majority of black Americans but also the reflexive experience of both the photographers and their communities.”
The essential part of Reflections in Black is dedicated to everyday life, to sportsmen and women (basketball teams, baseball players, boxers) and to musicians (Dinah Washington, Betty Carter, Max Roach, John Coltrane and others) as well as to other artists who enriched Americas culture.