6 Great Black Photographers

Jul 10, 2020  By Jason Schneider

They captured the essence of the Black experience in America, often with Leica cameras

As far back as the Civil War, there were great Black photographers who created compelling professional portraits of Black Americans and their families. These historical images, many showing people posing in their finest, memorialize their dignity, resilience, and self-affirmation in the face of horrific discrimination, unjust laws, and the violent racist residue of slavery. More recently, starting during the Great Depression and continuing to the present day, Black photographers in America have been doing something even more important. In the great tradition of photojournalism, they’ve created searing and compassionate visual documents of the actual day-to-day lives of Black people in their communities, capturing a visceral sense of their everyday reality, and revealing its unvarnished truth. The art they have created distills the agony and ecstasy of being human, and that is ultimately the emotional template that can help us all to transcend our prejudices and create a more just and equitable society.    

Gordon Parks: photographer, musician, writer, and film director

Gordon Parks (1912-2006) was one of the leading pioneers in documenting the Black experience in America, starting the 1940s and continuing through the 1970s, and he inspired many other Black photographers to take up the cause. The most internationally renowned African American photographer of the late 20th century, Parks focused on issues of civil rights, poverty, and the devastating effects of racial discrimination and Jim Crow laws. He is best remembered for his iconic images of poor Black Americans taken at the behest of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) early in his long career, for his searing photographic essays for Life magazine, and as one of the first Black filmmakers to create films revealing the experiences of slaves and struggling Black Americans—a genre that came to be known as “blaxploitation.” He was also the director of the seminal film Shaft, an accomplished glamour and fashion photographer, and an acclaimed author, poet, and composer.

Parks, born in Fort Scott, Kansas, was the youngest of 15 children and grew up in a farming family. He attended a segregated elementary school where he was not allowed to play sports or attend school social activities and discouraged from developing any higher aspirations. In a documentary on his life, he recalled that his teacher told him that his desire to go to college would be a waste of money. At age 15, after his mother had died, he was sent to St. Paul, Minnesota to live with his sister, but was eventually turned out on the street to fend for himself. After working in a succession of odd jobs, he landed one at the posh Minnesota Club where he was able to read many of the books in the club library. When the Crash of 1929 shuttered the club, he jumped a train to Chicago where he was employed in a flophouse.

Husband and Wife by Gordon-Parks, Courtesy-of-NGA.gov

At age 25, after spending about a decade in “The School of Hard Knocks” Parks was struck by photographs of migrant workers he saw in a magazine and was inspired to acquire his first camera for the grand sum of $7.50 at a Seattle, Washington pawnshop. He taught himself how to take pictures, and a succession of influential people, including Marva Louis, the wife of boxing legend Joe Louis, was so impressed with his photos that they encouraged and supported him. Parks and his wife soon moved to Chicago and opened a “society portrait” business. Eventually, his outstanding work documenting the life experiences of African Americans in Chicago led to his receiving the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1941, which, in turn, led to his being asked to join the FSA where he worked under the auspices of the great Roy Stryker chronicling the nation’s social conditions.  At that time, Parks shot one of his best-known photographs, American Gothic, Washington, D.C., a haunting image of a black woman, Ella Watson, who worked on the cleaning crew in the FSA building, standing stiffly, a broom in one hand and a mop in the background in front of an American flag hanging on the wall. Parks had been inspired to create this heartbreaking and powerful image after personally encountering racism in restaurants and shops in the capital city.

Here are just a few revealing first-person quotes from the great Gordon Parks:

“I’d become sort of involved in things that were happening to people. No matter what color they be, whether they be Indians, Negroes, the poor white person, or anyone who was I thought more or less getting a bad shake.”

“The subject matter is so much more important than the photographer.”

“I suffered evils, but without allowing them to rob me of the freedom to expand. The guy who takes a chance, who walks the line between the known and unknown, who is unafraid of failure, will succeed.”

Washington D.C. 1992. Lawyer John CRUMP who was victim of racism from a national hotel. Photo by Eli Reed, 1992

Eli Reed, photographer and photojournalist

The first full-time Black photographer employed by the world-renowned Magnum Agency, Eli Reed is the author of the acclaimed book, Black in America that includes many images that have been exhibited in prestigious venues including the Visa Pour L’image Festival Du Photoreportage in Perpignan, France. He was the runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 1982 and was the keynote speaker at National Geographic’s Photography Seminar in Washington DC in 2016. Currently a clinical professor of photojournalism at the University of Texas at Austin, and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Reed grew up in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, is self-taught, and has been taking pictures since he was 10 years old. He credits his success to the direction provided by his mentor, acclaimed photographer Donald Greenhaus, but he also studied illustration at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts, graduating in 1969. He’s won numerous awards, including the Leica Medal of Excellence in 1988, has authored a number of books including the much admired Homeless in America and A Long Walk Home, and he’s worked on numerous films.

Reed was very lucky when it came to securing jobs that propelled his early career, but he also faced racial discrimination, which he overcame with determination, grit, and a positive attitude. After high school, he studied illustration but took photography as an elective. That and his interest in world history motivated him to pursue photojournalism, and a chance opportunity landed him an assignment shooting a portrait for Vogue. Shortly thereafter, he serendipitously ran into the acclaimed photographer Donald Greenhaus, who became his demanding teacher and loving mentor. In yet another stroke of luck he found himself in upstate New York shooting a random photo of a guy closing up his restaurant when a man behind him smiled and said, “I can see by your camera you’re a man of distinction.” He was shooting with a Leica at the time, and he soon found himself in the offices of the Middletown Times Herald-Record talking to the executive editor. A year later, he signed on as a staff photographer, was subsequently recruited by the Detroit News, and then the San Francisco Examiner, which, by a circuitous set of circumstances led to a call from Phillip Jones Griffiths, the president of Magnum, inviting Reed to join the agency. The rest, as they say, is history. As Eli Reed said in his 2016 interview with American Photography’s PRO PHOTO DAILY, “It’s all about your sense of wonder or your sense of outrage. You go and try to do the best that you can. It’s all about the work.”

Jules Allen Photography, Rhythmology 3

Jules Allen, a supremely versatile photographer

Jules Allen considers himself a photographer rather than an artist. Born in San Francisco he was raised by hip, well informed, fashion-conscious parents to appreciate life, style, good timing, and grace. At age 18 he was inspired by seeing a portrait of renowned Black photographer Gordon Parks, whom he found handsome and dashing clad in a shearling coat and sporting a grand mustache. When he found out that Parks was a photographer, Allen decided to pursue the same career path.   He took darkroom classes at the San Francisco’s Dept. of Parks and Recreation and moved on to California State, earning a BA in Fine Arts. He studied with Jack Welpott, who’d been a protégé of both Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. By 19, Allen was wielding a 35mm Pentax Spotmatic, and later, a Leica, his favorite camera because “…it’s small, sharp and pretty.”

While serving in Vietnam, Allen gained early experience in shooting action. After returning home, he earned a Master’s in Clinical Counseling Psychology and signed on as a psychiatric social worker in San Francisco’s criminal justice system. He later moved to New York City and earned an MFA from Hunter College, where he studied with Roy DeCarava, the first photographer he ever met that expressed the need to define oneself in terms of an oppressed culture. That insight became a touchstone of Allen’s mission both as a photographer and as a teacher. Allen also shares the belief of the inimitable Diane Arbus, who famously stated that “the more specific a thing is, the more general.” As artist Danny Dawson has wryly but astutely observed, “Allen has a keen eye for the obvious,” one reason his lifelong work is so evocative of the contemporary Black experience. His images place subjects drawn from the richness of Black life within a universal context, and that’s what makes them so timeless and compelling

Jules Allen has now been teaching for more than two decades in the Art & Photography Department at CUNY’s Queensboro Community College and has received numerous awards, honors, and worldwide acclaim. His work spans a range of genres, including editorial, advertising, and entertainment. His photographs can be found in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Studio Museum in Harlem, the Brooklyn Museum, the Smithsonian National Gallery, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In collaboration with Queensboro’s Art Gallery, he’s published several acclaimed volumes of his work, including Hats & Hat Nots, Black Bodies, Double Up, and In Your Own Sweet Way. His latest image-rich books include Marching Bands, Rhthymology I Mean You, and Good Lookin Out.

“My theme as a photographer was to capture the richness of African American culture,” Allen proclaims. “I grew up seeing photographs of Black people sitting on porches doing nothing, always being victims and hopeless. Even at an early age, those images seemed absurd to me. It was a strong motivation to show a culture of activity.” His mission is brilliantly echoed in a speech by one of his heroes, the great Frederick Douglass: “… still, I go back, for the sake of my brethren. I go to suffer with them, to endure insult to them; to undergo outrage with them; lift up my voice in their behalf; to speak and write in their vindication; and struggle in their ranks for emancipation which shall be achieved.”

Profuse thanks to Clymenza Hawkins, whose excellent article on Jules Allen in African Voices was the source of much of the material for this writeup.

Photojournalist Ozier Muhammad with his Canon DSLR and 2 Leica M rangefinder cameras in 2014

Ozier Muhammad, photojournalist

A native of Chicago, Ozier Muhammad was born in 1950 and earned a B.A. in photography from Columbia College Chicago in 1972. His grandfather, Elijah Muhammad was the founder and leader of the Nation of Islam, a powerful religious and political organization founded in 1930 devoted to raising black consciousness and manifesting its power. Muhammad landed his first job as a photographer with Ebony magazine in the early ‘70s, worked at the Charlotte Observer from 1978-1980, and at Newsday from 1980-1992. While still working at Newsday he shared the 1985 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting with Josh Friedman and Dennis Bell for a reportage series entitled “Africa, The Desperate Continent” In 1992 Muhammad was hired as a staff photographer for The New York Times, a position he held until 2013.

While at the Times, he shot iconic, widely circulated photographs of President Barack Obama’s campaign, Haiti after the great earthquake, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and the NATO Summit protest in Chicago in 2012. He’s also written insightful articles on photojournalism for The New York Times blog “Lens.” Muhammad was named as a contributing photographer for the widely acclaimed Songs of My People (1990), a book, exhibition, and multimedia project focused on recording African American life through the eyes of prominent Black photographers. His work was also showcased in One Hundred Jobs: A Panorama of Work in the American City by Ron Howell. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Muhammad received the George Polk Award for New Photography in 1984, served as a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University from 1986-1987, and as a Peter Jennings Fellow at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia in 2007. Muhammad lives in New York City with his wife and 2 children, and son Khalil is the Director of the NYC-based Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

To give you a clearer idea of who Ozier Muhammad is and what motivates him as a photojournalist, here are some first-person quotes from an excellent interview conducted and written by Andrea Kurland that appeared in Huck Magazine:

“They say journalists are the first chroniclers of history – the first historians. So I felt compelled to be a sort of foot soldier; to walk around my community and try to convey, in the most compelling way, exactly what I saw. By 1975, in order to mature as a photojournalist, I had to leave the Black press. It became one-dimensional, focused on success stories, and I thought that too many of us were still struggling. There was too much focus on materialism rather than, ‘How do we improve our condition?’ Ironically, I felt that if I worked for the mainstream media I could do that.”

“In 1992, I joined The New York Times. As an African American, I could go to that editorial meeting and have a voice. When they solicited me for ideas I could say, ‘Hey, why don’t we do something on Black youth unemployment?’ Kids just doing whatever they could to survive. There was this one guy who started a gym outside, just off 125th Street, to get young men healthy. These were the stories I was interested in.”

Gerald Cyrus, Three Couples at La Place, courtesy The Leica Gallery

Gerald Cyrus: Documenting Black lives and culture

Born in 1957 in Los Angeles, CA, Gerald Cyrus began photographing in that sprawling city in 1984. In 1990, he moved to New York City and obtained a Master of Fine Arts degree from the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in 1992.  While at SVA, he also interned at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture under the supervision of Deborah Willis and began work on “Kinship,” a project focusing on African American family life. During his time in New York, Cyrus photographed regularly on the streets of Manhattan, Harlem, and Brooklyn, and in 1994, he started frequenting the nightclubs in Harlem documenting, the vibrant music scene in that historic neighborhood for over six years. The resulting body of work, entitled “Stormy Monday”, was published as a book in 2008. In 2000, Cyrus moved to Philadelphia, PA, and began photographing in that city as well as the nearby city of Camden, NJ.  He has also photographed extensively in Bahia, Brazil where he was a fellow at the Sacatar Foundation, and in New Orleans, LA (before and after Hurricane Katrina) where he has a family history.

Cyrus was an artist-in-residence at Light Work in Syracuse, New York, in 1995, and in 1998 was awarded a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. His work has been exhibited in museums including the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, the Bronx Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Smithsonian Anacostia Museum, and the Worcester Art Museum. His photographs are in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Amistad Center for Art & Culture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Readers’ Digest Corporation. He has been featured in two anthologies of Black photographers: Reflections in Black by Deborah Willis and Committed to the Image by Barbara Head Millstein.

Cyrus currently lives in Philadelphia and teaches part-time at Haverford College. He’s also a member of the Kamoinge, Inc. photographers’ collective. The following first-person excerpts from a Kamoinge interview provide a clearer insight on who he is and how he sees his mission:

“Jazz has historically played a major role in the culture of Harlem. Some of the most famous jazz clubs (such as Minton’s Playhouse) were based there, and countless musicians have been residents. When I moved there in the early 1990s, there were several neighborhood bars and lounges where live music was featured nightly with no cover charge. Almost all of those places are gone now, replaced by condos and upscale restaurants and bars. I moved out of Harlem in 1997 and live in Philadelphia now, but I’m always amazed at the changes that have taken place since then.”

“I have several cameras that I use depending on the project. The work I shot in Harlem nightclubs was done with a Leica 35mm camera; most of the work I shot on the streets was done with either the Leica or a Rolleiflex medium format camera. Also, all the work done at that time was shot on film. I prefer the black-and-white aesthetic because of the tonalities I can exploit, and because it focuses the viewer’s attention on the underlining meanings of the image. I don’t consider my work overtly political, but I think anytime you portray Black people in an intimate and insightful manner, you’re going against the history of negative portrayals that have defined the media in this country. I would tell Black youth today to stay focused on their goals and to work toward them day by day. Everything doesn’t come at once, and you have to be persistent and determined to succeed. I don’t know if America will ever reach its lofty proclamations of freedom and equality for all (certainly not in my lifetime), but I have to believe there’s hope that we’ll eventually get there.” 

Three Shadows, the Bronx, by Adger Cowans, courtesy NY Times

Adger Cowans: fine arts photographer

Born on September 19, 1936, in Columbus, Ohio Adger Cowans enrolled at Ohio University after graduating from high school.  He studied there with the renowned Clarence H. White Jr., an influential photographer and founding member of the group Photo-Secession. According to those who’ve written about Cowans, his early studies with both Clarence H. White Jr. and Minor White had a profound influence on his approach to photography as an art form.

After earning a BFA degree in 1958, Cowans joined the U.S. Navy, working as a Navy photographer until 1960. The following year, he landed a job as an assistant to Gordon Parks, who was then working at Life magazine. Later in his career, he worked with fashion photographer Henri Clark, who also influenced Cowans’ subsequent work. During the early ‘60s, Cowans photographed many of the activities of civil rights groups, notably the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). In 1962, he received a John Hay Whitney Foundation grant, a prestigious award that allowed him to pursue his own creative work. In 1963, he won the award for best photography at the Yolo International Exhibition in California, and shortly thereafter, he launched his career as a freelance photographer. During this time, Cowans was associated with the Boston group, The Heliographers, that included such notable photographers as Paul Caponigro and Jerry Uelsmann. In 1965, Cowans had his first major exhibition at the Heliography Gallery, one of the first New York galleries that considered photography to be fine art on a level with more traditional art forms such as painting or sculpture.

Renowned in both photography and fine art worlds, Cowans’ works have been shown at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, International Museum of Photography, Museum of Modern Art, The Studio Museum of Harlem, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Harvard Fine Art Museum, Detroit Art Institute, James E. Lewis Museum, and numerous other art institutions. Cowans was also awarded the Lorenzo il Magnifico alla Carriera in recognition of a Distinguished Career at the 2001 Florence Biennale of Contemporary Art and is the recipient of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Caesar Chavez, Rosa Parks Visiting Scholars Award at Wayne State University.

To give you a better insight into the man, his experience, and his mission, herewith two first-person excerpts from an interview conducted by The Daily Beast and another quote posted on the internet:

“I always separated myself from the picture. I didn’t take it. The Spirit took it. Something happened inside me that generated me to take that picture. So whatever people said about it was fine with me. If they liked it, fine, if they didn’t like it, fine. I was already into who they were—whether they were racist or looked at my work as the work of a “Black photographer” or whether they looked at the work as photography at all. I just had a desire to do something with my hands. Photography was: Either you get the shot or you don’t. But you also had to think about winding, apertures. You have to learn the technique so the technique is out of the way, then you can go with the feeling that is going through you. Your eyes only see they don’t feel. The eyes only see. It’s the heart that feels. If you can take the feeling of what you see into the photograph, now you are onto something.”

“To be a photographer was one thing. To say you were an artist was something else. There were big fights over the distinction. Were you an artist or a photographer? If you were a photographer, you were a craftsperson. There are a lot of pictures. But a photograph is something else. Everybody’s taking pictures but are they photographs? A photograph is something that will last down through the ages as something that evokes feelings and emotions. Sometimes the distinction between the two is very fine. Eugene Smith is a good example, a photojournalist who is also an artist. The guys back in the day weren’t concerned about being stars they were concerned about being photographers.”

“Capturing that emotion means being ready,” says Cowans, reaching for his new Leica V-Lux to show how he spent years practicing or rehearsing with his first cameras in the ‘50s. “I spent countless hours picking up my cameras without film, adjusting the focus, setting the aperture, adjusting the speed, clicking the shutter. It was like playing scales when I learned to play the piano. In the same way, I always practiced seeing. I look at everything—light, movement, form—everything. I practice with my eyes until it becomes second nature, like riding a bike.”

1 Comment

Thanks for sharing this information regarding these talented individuals. We need more diversity in all of the arts. I have gotten to know Gerald Cyrus & I hope to someday meet some of the other photographers who were featured.

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