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Review: Rich, deep 'Reflections in Black'


"Reflections in Black"
By Deborah Willis
W.W. Norton
332 pages

(CNN) -- "Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present" is the first historical compilation of its kind, introducing a black perspective on African-American life through almost 600 provocative images from simple portraits to artistically complex images. The book's perspective showcases black identity in America in a way that's largely different from the images often seen in the press and history books.

Without an agenda to either promote or define a specific black image, but simply to earn a living, early black photographers exposed a wide representation of African-Americans, from rich to poor, rural to urban, unknown to famous. The advent of drawing portraits with light rather than paint offered an economical way in which the common man could capture his image.


By the 1840s, not long after the invention of photography, there were already some fifty black daguerreotypists managing successful galleries specializing in portraiture in the United States -- men such as Jules Lion, Presley Ball and Augustus Washington. One of Washington's daguerreotype images shows an unidentified woman sitting for her portrait. Her stiff 1850s period attire of lace-gloved hands and dangling earrings informs her expression of ennui, not uncommon in photographs of the age, when subjects had to remain still for many minutes.

Black photographers, with or without a conscious intention to promote a positive black image, contributed to redefining blacks by default, simply by offering their distinct black perspectives. At a time when ideas were proposed theorizing the color of skin as an indication of inferiority, impartial photographs of black culture and life resisted prejudice, such as Addison N. Scurlock's 1915 photograph of a student in his university dormitory, peering at a book, framed photographs on the wall.

"Reflections in Black" offers more than a refutation of stereotypes; its photographs document the history of American life in general. In fact, by simply changing the skin color, any of the photographs in the compilation could just as accurately depict whites in America as they do blacks.

A James VanDerZee photograph of an affluent black couple during the Depression demonstrates their obvious prosperity, as seen in their matching fur coats, shiny new Cadillac and debonair visages. The picture undermines our assumptions of economic conditions during this era for whites as well as blacks. On the other hand, in a Gordon Parks photograph from 1942, Ella Watson -- a charwoman Parks made famous with a portrait in front of an American flag -- serves lunch in a cramped Washington apartment to her three grandchildren and adopted daughter. The photograph highlights a desolate poverty, and yet the subjects could just as easily be white.

As a black social conscience became a greater factor in American life, the work of black photographers reflected the demand for empowerment. By the middle of the 20th century, black photographers were documenting the events and people of a country immersed in the civil rights movement. Jack T. Franklin's candid of Martin Luther King and others on their way to the Montgomery March captures the scene expertly, down to the small cartons of milk carried by King and others. An even earlier photo taken by Robert H. McNeill attests to black women's solidarity as they march in protest of lynching: a stately, determined group.

In the 1970's, when universities began offering degrees in photography, the expression of black photography moved from the documentary to the artistic, although the most provocative photos offer both aesthetics, such as Joe Harris' photograph of two friends meeting on a street in Harlem. The energy emitted by the subjects, Speedo and Smiley, is so electric, one feels to have personally known them for years. Keith M. Calhoun's peaceful portrait of Reverend Brown contemplating in his rocking chair is another example of the artistic quality of the photograph as pleasing as its social importance to the portrayal of the black image.

The very necessity of having to define a black image portrays the pathos of a people who have had to earn what should be a natural right: to be seen without prejudice, to be seen as they are, to be seen at all. The importance of "Reflections in Black" is its accomplishment of this very thing. By exposing blacks and their history, Deborah Willis has, like the black photographers in her book, shed light upon African-American identity.

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Smithsonian Institution: Reflections in Black

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