Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Black Women Photographers

I typed those three words into google, and hey, there's a book by that name. In fact, on my 30th birthday, someone whose web name is Zingha gave the book "Viewfinders. Black Women Photographers" a five star rating on goodreads.com.
Here is what some reviewers had to say about Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe's book:

"...an historical perspective of the amazing Black women who were pioneers in photography. I learned about Eslanda Robeson, Elizabeth "Tex" Williams, Adine Williams, etc.-- women who inspired me (a Black woman) to become a professional photographer in a field dominated by men. The book's bio-bibliography is an added "plus" because it lists the cities where the Black women photographers resided."

"...it is a classic history of the black female participants in the field of photography, mostly journalistic or portrait photography (which I frankly prefer for the unsung aspects of history it drags with it."

As Moutoussamy-Ashe tells the story, these black women photographers have been there all along, apprenticing under the black men photographers, married to them or their daughters. As the men were elevated to a partial visibility (after HARLEM ON MY MIND at the Metropolitan in late 60s), the women never rose to attention with them.

...black photographers of whatever gender remain marginalized and underrated. Not quite sure why this is but it can be clearly perceived in looking at the present status of the two most famous African American male photographers ever-- Gordon Parks and James VanDerZee. That they are both dead after long rich lives doesn't help. Why doesn't everybody who graduates from college, black or white, know these two photographers, just as they know who Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are?

...my suspicion is that a lot of us buy books to look at and display, which we don't bother to read so that information contained therein does no good, doesn't lead to anything. People don't know anything more than when they bought the book, maybe less because now they think they've done all they can do for the good health of the black image. It's not the buying of the book that transforms. It's the reading of the book! Of course, there isn't any time these days for reading so who is to blame?
Maybe you don't dig my analysis. Nevermind. Just get this book if you can find it-- it should be in the library somewhere or weed through the second hand market-- and it will straighten you out along with Deborah Willis's history of photography with link herein.

What a gem this book is! This is certainly an area of photography unexplored by most. Though I've loved photography for decades, until I found this book I hadn't given much thought to women of color who photographed. When I think of difficulty that women such as Gilpin and Cunningham had in simply supporting themselves in the early days, how must it have been for these women, seemingly doubly handicapped!
One must respect the difficulty Mrs. Ashe encountered trying to uncover so many of the more obscure figures. My favorites were the women who operated commercial photographic studios, taking all types of 'hack' photography. Of course, we have now come to respect that type of photography as a form of documentary work, and some of these women did it beautifully. 'Tex', the military photographer, was another favorite.

So there you go, a whole lot more information coming at you, thank you online book reviewers everywhere.

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