Denver Pro Photo celebrates Black History Month. These four African-America photographers helped photography grow as an art form while bringing attention to the plight of their communities.
James Van Der Zee (1886-1983)
James Van Der Zee was a famous portrait photographer, working during the Harlem Renaissance. He bought his first camera when he was a teenager, and improvised a darkroom in his parent's home. In 1915, he moved to Newark, New Jersey, where he took a job in a portrait studio, first as a darkroom assistant and then as a portraitist. He returned to Harlem the following year, setting up a studio at a music conservatory that his sister had founded in 1911. In 1916 Van Der Zee started the Guarantee Photo Studio on West 125th Street in Harlem. His business boomed during World War I. During the 1920s and 1930s, he produced hundreds of photographs recording Harlem's growing middle class, weddings, funerals, celebrities and sports stars.
James Van Der Zee's Harlem photo studio
James Van Der Zee often used double exposures. This photograph of a funeral is one example.
American Legionnaire, District of Columbia, 1937 Identical Twins, 1924 The Moorish Jews of Harlem, 1929 Tap dancers (Nicholas Brothers?), c. 1925 Couple in Raccoon Coats, 1932
Gordon Parks (1912-2006)
Gordon Parks was a Photographer, Filmmaker, writer and musician. Parks created the "blaxploitation" movie genre, directed "Shaft", and had a fashion career with Vogue. Gordon Parks is best remembered for his civic photography. In 1948, Parks started a 20-year career with Life magazine where he photographed fashion, sports, Broadway, poverty, and racial segregation, as well as portraits of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Muhammad Ali, and Barbra Streisand. His 1956 photo essay, titled "The Restraints: Open and Hidden," illuminated the effects of racial segregation while simultaneously following the everyday lives and activities of three families in and near Mobile, Alabama: the Thronton’s, Causey’s, and Tanner’s. Curators at the High Museum of Art Atlanta note, while Parks’ photo essay served as decisive documentation of the Jim Crow South and all of its effects, he did not simply focus on demonstrations, boycotts, and brutality that is associated with that period instead, however, he "emphasized the prosaic details" of the lives of several families.
American Gothic 1942
Parks took this image of Ella Watson while working for the Farm Security Administration (FSA).
"I didn’t care about what anybody else felt. That’s what I felt about America and Ella Watson’s position inside America."
Untitled Works from Shady Grove Alabama, 1956
Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956 At Segregated Drinking Fountain, Mobile, Alabama, 1956 Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama, 1956
Mother and Children, Mobile, Alabama, 1956
Roy DeCarava (1919-2009)
Roy DeCarava was born in Harlem in 1919 to a single Jamaican mother. Decarava had natural artistic gifts, which eventually led him to art school, where he began as a painter. In 1952, DeCarava applied for the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. He was the first black photographer to receive the grant, and he used it to photograph Harlem. The photos from this period became the contents of a book, The Sweet Flypaper Of Life, made in collaboration with Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes. It showed Harlem as a mix of quiet ordinary moments, everyday struggles, and tiny triumphs.
DeCarava photographed for his whole life and is most noted for photographing the New York jazz scene. capturing all the greats. The most important thing to DeCarava was that the old woman next door deserved a photograph just as much as John Coltrane.
Here is an NPR Fresh Air interview with Roy Decarava.
Lingerie, New York 1950
From The Sweet Flypaper of Life
Man in Striped Shirt at Piano
Man coming up subway stairs 1952
Jamel Shabazz (1960-Present)
Born and raised in Brooklyn during the Civil Rights movement, Jamel picked up his first Camera at age 15. At age 17 Shabazz joined the army and was stationed in Germany. Here he met Phil Harris who had a profound effect on the young man's life. Surrounded by an intense culture of drugs in Germany, Harris showed Shabazz an alternative spiritually focused lifestyle. Shabazz would take these lessons back to New York with him where he hoped to inspire others in a similar way. In a 2015 interview with Dazed and Confused Magazine, Shabazz said "As a result of seeing the deadly consequences that drugs had on American soldiers, I used my voice to inform many of my photographic subjects of the pitfalls that they were facing. Unfortunately, I could not predict the large scale and upcoming crack epidemic that would hit the streets of America, reminding me of all of the destruction I had witnessed just a few years earlier while being stationed overseas." You can read the full interview here.
Crack Kills, 1985 Back to the World
Rush Hour, 1988 Young Blood, 1982