Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

African American Women and Photography

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W.E.B. DU BOIS, TYPES OF NEGROES

L to R: W.E.B. Du Bois. African American girl, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number LC-USZ62-121109; W.E.B. Du Bois. African American girl with braided hair, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, 1899. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number LC-USZ62-121107.

Understanding that the relationship between photography and perceptions of reality was problematic for and posed a threat to the advancement of African Americans in the twentieth century, sociologist and pioneering critical race theorist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) issued a call for black artists to create a counter-archive contesting the caricatures that Europeans and European Americans had been producing for centuries. In his essay, "Criteria of Negro Art" (1926), he argues "that African American art must testify to African American identities, providing a record to challenge a long legacy of racist representation." To demonstrate aesthetic strategies that defied racist perceptions, he compiled a collection of formal portraits of southern middle-class African Americans from Georgia and other parts of the southern region. Many of these portraits directly quoted ethnographic images through the use of frontal and profile views, only in Du Bois's collection, the models were dressed in traditional late-Victorian era clothing, three-piece suits, and tea gowns. Titled "Types of American Negroes," the collection was exhibited for the first time at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Although his collection proposed an African American identity that represented only a small segment of the black population in the United States at the time, it still offered a much more complex alternative to the misrepresentations produced by white supremacist ideologues. The photographs set a new documentary standard for representing blackness in the twentieth century, influencing photographers for generations to come, many of them women who still have not received the same level of attention as their male counterparts, irrespective of ethno-racial background.

A survey of images made between the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the 1970s reveals that documentary photography was the preferred method for African Americans, and portraits and street scenes from black enclaves were the preferred subjects. After centuries of Europeans and European Americans telling their stories and making their images, reclaiming the record became a priority for African American photographers. Black photographic production during this era comprises one of the most important and yet seldom seen or referenced archives of black social, cultural, and political life in the United States. Despite these important developments, it was not until the 1970s that the mainstream art world finally recognized and embraced a black female photographic artist, Adrian Piper. At the same time, the content of and approach to photography changed radically. Conceptualism was the new movement sweeping through the art world as a whole, and in photography, practitioners were merging the medium with performance and text in ways created to destabilize photographic images, as well as language and the meaning we make from both.

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