Black On Black

When photography came to America, Jules Lion met the boat. The first successful photographic process was only a year old in 1840 when Lion opened his daguerreotype studio in New Orleans. That made him the first African-American photographer. But the thing that sets the African-American photographic tradition apart is not its length or its numerous geniuses. It's the point of view, the unique perspective that photographers like James VanDerZee brought to his celebratory pictures of Harlem high life, or that 19th-century photographer J. P. Ball demonstrated when he produced a triptych of a freed slave in Montana who is posed for his portrait, then photographed being hanged for murder and lastly shown in his coffin. The difference was not about access, it was about attitude. Any photographer--black or white--could have walked down a Harlem street in 1964 and taken a picture of an ebullient Malcolm X walking with Muhammad Ali after Ali won the heavyweight title. But white photographers did not take pictures of Malcolm X laughing. It took Robert L. Haggins, a black man, to make that photograph.

In "Reflections in Black," currently at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, curator Deborah Willis tells this story better than it has ever been told before--or shown: the majority of the 300 images in this first-ever retrospective of black photography have never been exhibited. And although she has written widely before on African-American photography, here she lays out everything she knows. Combining the work of professionals and amateurs, documentarians and deconstructionists, she gives us what amounts to an extraordinary family album of the black American experience (for a touring schedule, see box. The book version, published by Norton, will appear in June and will contain an additional 200 images).

The result of Willis's groundbreaking effort is both delightful and unsettling, because it undermines our expectations with almost every image. Black photographers rarely knew each other, especially in photography's first century, but from the outset their agenda was remarkably similar. First and last, they used their art as a corrective to mainstream white culture's pictures of blacks. Whether the people in these pictures were rich or poor, they were never stereotypes. From the beginning, the photographers vigilantly guarded their subjects' individuality and dignity. More often than not the people posing were all too happy to take on that job themselves. P. H. Polk, an early-20th-century photographer schooled at the Tuskegee Institute, liked his subjects sitting down. But in a picture simply called "The Boss," his camera confronts a rather large, elderly woman who would not sit down. With a bandanna on her head, her hands on her hips and a defiant expression on her face, this wonderful woman gives us the ultimate anti-Aunt Jemima.

"Reflections in Black" battles cliches at every turn, but it also uncovers some surprising continuities. The techniques of contemporary photographer Carrie Mae Weems are quite similar to the postmodern contrivances of artist Cindy Sherman, for example. Both women pose themselves as characters in a narrative, but while Weems's work is very much of the moment, her themes have preoccupied black photographers for 160 years: the search for a sense of family, community and self. Like the rest of this show, her work is about identity and about having a say. Who knew there were this many kinds of eloquence?