Aperture Magazine Dedicates its Summer Issue to Black Culture and Black Experience through the Work of Black Photographers

Jamel Shabazz The Ranks, Chicago, Illinois, 1997
Jamel Shabazz
The Ranks, Chicago, Illinois, 1997

In the documentation of U.S. history through photography, a fundamental component has long been overlooked by the art and media world: black photography by black photographers. For a long time, magazines, museums, galleries and art institutions have been unable or unwilling to acknowledge it or grasp its essence.

With few outlets and publishers, and little support or public attention, black photographers have had to achieve some visibility for themselves and their art, bringing the spirit of blackness to the public through paths that were often more complicated.

“Blackness in photography has been overlooked, but that has not deterred us,” says Jamel Shabazz, a legendary street photographer who has made an incomparable contribution to black culture. “Actually it has propelled many to take a proactive position and do for self, despite the many obstacles and roadblocks.”

That “proactive position” was the monograph “The Sweet Flypaper of Life”, the first to be published by a black photographer, Roy DeCarava, in 1955, three years after Aperture magazine was founded. The second monograph by a black photographer, “House of Bondage” by Ernest Cole, came more than a decade later. It was Kamoinge, a NY-based collective of African American photographers – of which Shabazz is a member – established in 1963, six years before the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented James Van Der Zee’s “Harlem on My Mind”, that put together the first retrospective on a black photographer’s work, bringing scenes of life on 125th street to a prestigious and international stage.

More than five decades later, Aperture is publishing an issue dedicated to blackness and black culture in photography – a first for the publication – with conversations between photographers, authors, artists, historians and experts under the masterly direction of distinguished guest editor Sarah Lewis, a professor of History of Art and Architecture and African and African American Studies at Harvard University.

The issue, called “Vision & Justice,” comes at a time astir with thoughtful considerations about black culture and a new quest for self and identity: The Obama administration coming to a close, concerns over rampant social injustice and civil rights, and debates about equal opportunity and discrimination (with #BlackLivesMatter and #OscarsSoWhite trending in the public opinion), not to mention Beyoncé’s latest album bringing black womanhood to mainstream attention.

Inspired by Frederick Douglass’ 1864 speech in “Picture and Progress”, the diptych of vision and justice entails “not just the power of art but the power of how [art] shifts perception,” and what happens “in us as a result,” Lewis says.

To give full representation of blackness and Afro-American culture, the issue brings together the work of a broad range of photographers who, in different times and places, have chronicled the resilience, beauty, and values of black people. It’s an extensive exercise in “retrospective” and correction where the breadth of the works restores a plurality of topics necessary for full representation of the black experience.

Douglass called for images to “show the variation in forms of black subjectivity,” historian and intellectual Henry Louis Gates explained in this issue, in order “to display individual black specificity,” an aspect mostly dismissed by mainstream representation which has promoted instead a stereotypical black imagery of violence and illiteracy. Discussing visual representation, Douglass attempted both to “display and displace,” longing for a disruptive and creative action not too dissimilar from what American-Ethiopian artist and photographer Awol Erizku achieves in his work.

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Source: TIME | Lucia De Stefani @lucia_destefani