Celebrating Black History Month with Fervor & Vitality

The month of February is known as Black History Month, and what better way to celebrate than to relish in the imagery created by black women photographers? I suppose, seeing the work in person would be better tenfold, but for now, let these photographs settle into your sights.

A big part of my search for these women was part recollection: whose work have I already come to know and love? I wrote eight names down. The second half of my search was uncovering the 1985 book, Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers, written by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe. The book is described as a bible of sorts to some black women creatives, as it is a collection of diverse photographs from black female photographers from the mid-1800s to the late 1980s. An introduction to Viewfinders lead me to an important article by Vogue, which presented a new book that took on where Moutoussamy-Ashe left off.

Mfon: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora was created some 30 years later by two Brooklyn born photographers, Laylah Amatullah Barryn and Adama Delphine Fawundu. Barryn and Fawundu have come together to preserve and document the work of more than 100 women photographers of African descent from around the world.

I highly suggest picking up Mfon, and visiting your local library to pick up Viewfinders, or snagging it on Amazon. But first, enjoy the works by these 16 women photographers below, and truly allow them to make space for what you don’t often see in the world of Western eyes. Don’t scroll past! Put a timer for 5 minutes for each photo if you must. Have some control over what you’re digesting, and really let these works sink in:

 

Michelle Agins
Michelle Agins, James Baldwin in Chicago, 1983.

Michelle Agins

Michelle Agins, is one of the longest-running staff photographers at The New York Times. She has worked since June 1989 as a staff photographer with the NY Times, and has been documenting life in major cities like New York, Chicago, and Baltimore as a journalist since the 1970s.

Agins first got her start as an intern for The Chicago Daily News and in less than a year  became a sports photographer. In 2001 Ms. Agins and her colleagues won a Pultizer Prize for National Reporting on the series How Race is Lived in America.

In her famed photo of James Baldwin, the novelist introduces his new Book “Evidence of Things Not Seen” at the Home of Lerone Bennett in Chicago in 1983, Agins captures the writer, host and friends conversing round a kitchen table. A pack of cigarettes and a lighter, glasses and plates, all dictate the mood of what otherwise might be a leisurely conversation. Yet Agins places herself just above the table, to show us how well she can record the moment without breaking the intensity of Baldwin’s sightline.

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Carrie Mae Weems Woman Standing
Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Woman Standing) from the series Kitchen Table, 1990.

Carrie Mae Weems              

Carrie Mae Weems is one of the most noted black women photographers in art history. Her 1990 photographical series Kitchen Scenes was inspired in part by the influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975) by the critic Laura Mulvey, which addressed the lack of non-objectified representations of women in film and other cultural expressions.  As such, Weems offers a valid portrait of an often overlooked subject, in this case, a modern black woman.

Weems’ gelatin silver prints trace a period in the woman’s life as she experiences the blossoming, then loss, of love, the responsibilities of motherhood, and the desire to be an engaged and contributing member of her community.

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Five Day Forecast by Lorna Simpson
Lorna Simpson, Five Day Forecast, 1991.

Lorna Simpson

Lorna Simpson is an American conceptual artist whose works deal with identity politics as a black woman. In her piece, Five Day Forecast, Simpson combines image and text to examine the processes through which meaning and understanding takes place. In these early works Simpson often used the image of a black woman, photographed cropped, or from behind, against a stark background, and accompanied by text panels. Both text and image are deliberately austere in style. Five Day Forecast was first conceived in 1988, at which time Simpson made two versions of the work using Polaroid photographs; one of these was subsequently damaged. In 1991 she decided to remake the work in an edition with silver gelatin print photographs which she shot with a large format 5 x 4 camera.

The words, with their negative connotations, imply a repeated breakdown in communication, within personal, professional and racial relationships. At the same time, the pun on ‘mis/miss’ raises questions of gender and identity and the exchange of power within such relationships.

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The Garden.jpg
Deana Lawson, The Garden, 2016.

Deana Lawson

You’ll probably recognize Deana Lawson’s striking work as the cover of musician Blood Orange’s third released album, Freetown Sound. Lawson’s photographs are erotic in nature, and at times intimate, conjuring thoughts of mortality, motherhood, and protection.

What I love most about Lawson’s way of seeing is her approach to her subjects. Taking to the everyday aspects of life, Lawson engages with her subjects in subways, grocery stores, and out on the streets location scouting. In a conversation with esteemed photographer Catherine Opie, Lawson answered how she chose the subjects in her photograph, The Garden. En route to a field of grass, Lawson asked a woman and a man if they would pose for her. The two, strangers at first, sit in the grass where we gaze upon a moment of tenderness we would presume belongs to a loving couple with child.

No matter how bare fleshed her subjects can be, and no matter how much appreciation we can take from the human form, the image and the moment is for the subject and photographer alone. That is something I always try to digest when I view Lawson’s work, and it blows my mind every time. Just when imagination takes hold, the truth in the photograph reveals a mutual respect, trust, honesty, and above all, representation.

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Nichole Washington - Me I'm Supa Fly
Nichole Washington, Me I’m Supa Fly, from the series For My Girls, 2016.

Nichole Washington

Nichole Washington is a visual artist from the suburbs of Minnesota. She is a graduate of the School of Visual Arts, where her 2016 series For My Girls expresses the confidence and poise of black womanhood through dynamic portraits, utilizing a painted layer to add to the boldness of each subject.

“I grew up listening to women like Queen Latifah, Missy Elliot, Da Brat and so on. These women were role models for me as a young black girl. They were confident, they were in charge and they were all so unique when it came to personal style,” reflects Washington.

“Through manipulation of my images I am creating super heroine characters based on the subjects unique physical qualities and my imagination. I hope that my work will inspire women to live boldly, and confidently from the inside out.”

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Endia Beal - Am I What You're Looking For
Endia Beal, Kyandra and Shakiya, from the series Am I What You’re Looking For? 2016.

Endia Beal

Endia Beal is a photographer based in North Carolina who uses “art as a vehicle to deal” with what the photographer is going through emotionally. Her 2016 series, Am I What You’re Looking For focuses on young educated black women who are about to transition into the corporate world. Each woman expressed their personal struggles with discrimination in the workplace, and shared the feeling that to be deemed professional was to be white. This notion causes black hair styles to be seen as unprofessional and problematic by colleagues and superiors. Names were confessed to be “too difficult” to pronounce, suggesting the young women alter themselves for the job at hand.

Beal shared the very same uncertainties and fears of the corporate world as an intern in the I.T. department at Yale. In fact, the backdrop Beal uses for her series is of a hallway from the very offices of her internship.

Framing her subjects between their home and the office backdrop, the photographer exposes bits and pieces of the women’s everyday life. A baby photo, silky ribbons, silver and gold trophies, grad photos in their frames, and home decor burst at the edges. Some of Beal’s subjects stand confidently, defiantly, while others seem to be unsure.

“It’s from the way that you talk, it’s what you have on. You almost have to mute yourself in order to fit into this space. And sadly, the girls have been told that the have to do the same thing,” says Beal in an interview.

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Namsa Leuba
Namsa Leuba, Untitled from the series Tonköma, South Africa, 2015.

Namsa Leuba

Namsa Leuba’s diverse photographic practice examines the representation of African identity through the Western imagination. Spanning documentary, fashion and performance, Leuba’s visual imaginary explores the signs and symbols of her cultural heritage, from rituals and ceremonies to statuettes and masquerades. Whether executed on location in the artist’s ancestral hometown of Guinea or in a constructed studio environment, Leuba’s projects combine an anthropological interest in traditional customs with an aesthetic that is informed by fashion and design sensibilities. Adopting a theatrical approach with careful attention to props, colors and gestures, Leuba questions the relationship between fact and fiction, action and representation, as well as the sacred and the profane.

Also, please take a look at her zine What We Want (2010) which features a re-enactment of scenes of the Black Panthers. It’s incredibly well done, and unsung.

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Arielle Bob-Willis
© Arielle Bob-Willis

Arielle Bobb-Willis

Born and raised in New York City, with pit stops in South Carolina and New Orleans, Arielle Bobb-Willis is a young photographer working within her own color-rich, abstract world. There’s something truly special about the way she moves people – in the physical sense and in the emotional sense. Specializing in contorted figures, her audience has come to understand her humble purpose and image-making process through her knack for gently pushing herself and those around her. To the viewer her photographs might seem abstract, but dig just a little below the surface and it’s clear her vision is ever-lucid.

Her work focuses on color, fashion, and figurative movements to create shapes one could find within the ordered chaos of an abstract painting. Each shape celebrates strength amongst chaos, a feeling Bobb-Willis knows all too well herself.

In an interview with Rookie, Bobb-Willis explains “I want my pictures to showcase what it feels like when one is comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

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Nadine Ijewere - Same Difference
Nadine Ijewere, Victoria & Jennifer from the series Same Difference, 2016.

Nadine Ijewere

Nadine Ijewere is an editorial and commercial photographer. Her work spans from the cover of the British Journal of Photography, to Vogue Italia, Stella McCartney, GAP and Asos. One of my favorite editorials by Ijewere is with Office Magazine, where she captured some of the best sci-fi vibes.

In an ongoing portrait series Same Difference, Ijewere points her lens at siblings, capturing their similarities and differences in an editorial fashion. The portraits are stunning, vulnerable and strong, and entirely worth your attention.

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Phila-I-Parktown_2016_ZaneleMuholi
Zanele Muholi, Phila I, from the series Somnyama Ngonyama, 2016.

Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi is a South African artist and self proclaimed visual activist amongst the LGBTQ+ community working with conceptual photography, video and installation.

In an ongoing self portrait series Somnyama Ngonyama (meaning Hail, the Dark Lioness), Muholi uses her body as a canvas to confront stigmas against homosexuality in South Africa, while questioning the way her black body is perceived. Everyday objects transform into loaded historical props, such as the latex glove pictured above, addressing domestic servitude. Other props like plastic and rubber tires often references global waste, and some add to Western fascinations with exoticised representations of African cultures.

“My reality is that I do not mimic being black; it is my skin, and the experience of being black is deeply entrenched in me. Just like our ancestors, we live as black people 365 days a year, and we should speak without fear.”

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Sol Bela 'Hair Stories: African Threading'
Sol Bela, Untitled from the series Hair Stories: African Threading, 2018.

Sol Bela 

Barcelona based photographer Sol Bela is one of my favorite newly found photographers to date. Her ability to capture raw emotion with her subjects is what immediately caught my interest in her series Hair Stories: African Threading.

Hair Stories embodies the diaspora and memory of the many hairstyles that Bela’s mother used to do during her childhood. The series also strongly shows how versatile and beautiful Afro hair is.

“As a Black African woman I’ve struggled with my identity and the oppression of my hair in a European Country. I want to show girls who are in the same situation that our hair is beautiful no matter the shape, colour or texture,” says Bela.

Having spent half of her life in Spain, Sol Bela’s roots are in Guinea Equatorial. Bela started a fashion blog after she had come to the realization that her interests in the genre were exceptionally lacking of cultural diversity. From her experience behind the camera, Bela wanted to represent her roots in tender warmth, unapologetically.

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The Girls Who Spun Gold
Nydia Blas, Untitled from The Girls Who Spun Gold, 2016.

Nydia Blas

Nydia Blas is a visual artist living in Ithaca, New York with her two children. She holds a B.S. from Ithaca College, and received her M.F.A. from Syracuse University in the school of Visual and Performing Arts. Her photos delicately weave stories concerning circumstance, value, and power and uses her work to create a physical and allegorical space presented through a Black feminine lens. She is drawn to matters of sexuality and intimacy and calls upon her lived experience as a girl, woman, and mother. The result is an environment that is dependent upon the belief that  in order to maintain resiliency, a magical outlook is necessary.

The Girls Who Spun Gold, was inspired by an African-American adaption of Rumpelstiltskin (a classic Brothers Grimm fairytale) about a woman who is chosen to become the wife to the ruler of the land because of her ability to spin gold. Blas explores this idea while working with girls participating in the photographer’s girl empowerment group she founded.

“I wanted my subjects to reclaim, explore, and protect their bodies and sexuality, and to  reveal the magic that happens between women and self. I would like this work to state that black and brown females have a right to pleasure and a right to fantasy.”

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Ideas.jpg
Sophia Nahli Allison, To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals—Gwendolyn Brooks, 2016.

Sophia Nahli Allison

Sophia Nahli Allison is an experimental documentary filmmaker, educator, and time traveler. Born in 1987, and a native of South Central Los Angeles, she is passionate about excavating and reimagining dreams, ancestral memories, and the archives of black women and girls.

In 2017 she was named the Student Video Photographer of the Year by the White House News Photographer Association. She was a participant of the Eddie Adams Workshop, the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, and the 2nd Annual New York Times Lens Blog Portfolio Review. Her work has been featured on the cover of PDN, online with The AtlanticPBS, Fusion and more. She has interned at The Seattle Times, Tampa Bay Times and The Chicago Reporter. As an educator she’s taught photo and video to youth in Chicago and Los Angeles and is a grateful recipient of the Chicago 3Arts Award, a $25,000 grant for her work as a teaching artist.

She is currently working on a new documentary and completing her graduate degree at The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill as a Roy H. Park Fellow. She received her B.A in photojournalism.


Close up portrait of Chyna Pace in the parking lot of her Inglewood, CA home.
Oriana Koren, Close up portrait of Chyna Pace in the parking lot of her Inglewood, CA home, 2017, for California Sunday Magazine.

Oriana Koren

Oriana Koren is an editorial photographer and writer based in Los Angeles, CA whose work is anchored in food, culture, and travel. Interested in the intersections of food, history and community, Koren’s work is a fusion of personal narrative and in-depth documentary practice focusing on the principal contributions of people of color, immigrant, and womxn’s communities within American foodways and food culture.

Molding narrative and documentary, Koren develops a blend of beautiful portraits in her commissioned piece, Underground Chefs. Koren focuses her lens on the home cooks like Chyna Pace (photographed above) of South LA who transform their homes into a place of business, where they can build on their craft to feed their passions and communities, all while making a name for themselves.

Koren is part of PDN’s One’s to Watch, and her clients include The New York Times, and Washington Post. Feel free to watch this wonderful video of Koren on “Breaking the Barriers to Success” which provides major insight on how to make it as a woman of color in the editorial industry.

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Samantha Box, INVISIBLE: The Shelter, The Street, 2005-2012
INVISIBLE: The Shelter, The Street is a documentary series that describes the impact of homelessness on LGBTQ youth. © Samantha Box, 2005 – 2012.

Samantha Box

Samantha Box is a documentary photographer based in Brooklyn, New YorkSince 2005, she has documented New York City’s community of LGBTQ youth of color, the social issues affecting these young adults, and the structures of family, intimacy and validation that bind and protect them. The resulting body of work, INVISIBLE, is a continuing multi-chapter exploration into the lives of this young community.

“The young people that I photograph are some of the most resilient people that I have ever met: despite facing the societal animosity of homo- and transphobia, and the burden of a broken system that conspires to keep them homeless,” she says, “they continuously work for a future where their talents and intellect can be used, where they have a home, a family and a life of stability.”

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Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Hard Hats
Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Hard Hats, Rochelle, New York, 1972.

Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe

I’d like to conclude this roundup with the way it began, through my discovery of Viewfinders, by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe.

Art has been a life-long pursuit for Moutoussamy-Ashe. Her mother, Elizabeth Moutousammy, an interior designer and father, John Moutoussamy, an architect, encouraged her artistic abilities at an early age. Taking advantage of the opportunities available to them in Chicago, she began her formal training at age eight when her parents enrolled her in classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. When it was time for undergraduate studies, Moutoussamy-Ashe moved east to New York and received a B.F.A. degree in photography from The Cooper Union School of Art. After graduating in 1975, she worked as a graphic artist and photojournalist for WNBC-TV.

Her photographs contain strong narrative and documentary elements. Documenting her travels in West Africa, her book about the Gullah community of South Carolina, Daufuskie Island: A Photographic Essay reveals the most intimate black and white portraits of residents of the community Moutoussamy-Ashe shares her immediate personal experience in Daddy and Me, which features photos of her late husband, Arthur Ashe, and her daughter, Camera living day to day as her father, a well known tennis champion, father, husband and gentleman who died of AIDS in February 1993.

 

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