There is increasing recognition that photography provides one of the best means to track the history, settings, culture and people who have contributed to America’s story. From Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner’s graphic images of the carnage of the Civil War to views of presidential inaugurations to photographs of men on the moon and portraits of influential figures, the unblinking camera has provided visual documentation of who were are, what we have done and where we are heading.
Photographic portraits offer particularly interesting insights into the personalities †famous, infamous and unknown †who have shaped the country Americans know today. This is especially true with regard to African Americans, an underchronicled element in US society.
American history is retold through photographic likenesses of black Americans in “Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits,” a collaborative exhibition project of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and the International Center of Photography (ICP). It is on view at the ICP through September 9.
The NMAAHC, the 19th and newest member of the Smithsonian Institution, is slated to open within a decade on Washington’s National Mall adjacent to the Washington Monument. This inaugural exhibition is curated by Deborah Willis, chair of the department of photography and imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and author of numerous books, including a history of black photographers.
The show features 100 photographs from the NPG’s permanent collection that trace 150 years of US history through likenesses of African American statesmen, slaves, abolitionists, artists, writers, scientists, entertainers and sports figures. Starting with portraits from the mid-Nineteenth Century, the exhibition examines the manner in which sitters often collaborated with photographers to create positive images and challenge demeaning stereotypes. In the process, they refuted predominately negative representations of blacks in American mainstream culture.
“As we examined the photographs that compose this exhibition,” says NMAAHC director Lonnie G. Bunch III, “it was clear that they revealed, reflected and illuminated the variety of creative and courageous ways that African Americans resisted, accommodated, redefined and struggled in an America that needed but rarely embraced and accepted its black citizens.”
Inevitably, a good many of the older images were taken by unknown photographers. More recent portraits are by such name photographers as Berenice Abbott, Bruce Davidson, Phillippe Halsman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Arnold Newman, Gordon Parks, Irving Penn, Carl Van Vechten, James VanDerZee, Edward Weston and Garry Winogrand. As Willis writes in the catalog, “Many photographers used composition and studio setups to establish spaces where African Americans could express themselves visually, intellectually, spiritually and emotionally.”
The exhibition begins with familiar likenesses of leading abolitionists. First is an 1856 ambrotype by an unknown photographer of the fierce and determined Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became a famed newspaper editor and orator. He is paired with the equally courageous Sojourner Truth, another escaped slave who became an intrepid campaigner for African American emancipation and women’s rights.
A lesser-known but important antislavery leader, clergyman Henry Highland Garnet, escaped slavery to become a militant activist abolitionist. His stalwart 1881 portrait suggests the passion with which he exhorted African Americans in 1843 to rise up and emancipate themselves: “Rather die freemen than live to be slaves&Let your motto be resistance! Resistance! RESISTANCE!” Thus, the title of this exhibition.
The cause that Douglass, Truth and Garnet championed is epitomized by an 1863 albumen print from the Mathew Brady Studio of “Gordon, showing the horrifically scarred back of a slave who had been savagely whipped by his overseer on a Louisiana plantation before escaping and enlisting in the Union Army.” Also known as “The Scourged Back,” this widely disseminated photograph, “A searing indictment of slavery,&ecame one of the most powerful images in the abolitionist cause,” writes NPG curator Frank H. Goodyear III in the exhibition catalog.
More recent likenesses include leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, notably Adam Clayton Powell, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.
Some of the most interesting faces †and personalities †in the exhibition belong to writers, scientists and intellectuals. The handsome and magnetic Booker T. Washington (1856‱915), who headed the Tuskegee Institute and preached African American progress through skilled labor, is pictured delivering one of his famous orations in 1915. Scientist and educator George Washington Carver (circa 1864‱943), who used his position as head of the agricultural department at Tuskegee to advocate scientific farming methods, appears at work in his laboratory in a circa 1930 photo.
Howard University professor Alain Locke (1886‱954) helped inspire the Harlem Renaissance by urging black Americans to use their African roots and their own heritage to shape their lives and culture. Van Vechten’s 1941 likeness captured the calm, thoughtful demeanor of this important intellectual leader.
Langston Hughes, the prolific Harlem Renaissance writer, appears jaunty and relaxed in Edward Weston’s 1932 photograph, while expatriate writer James Baldwin, who wrote passionately about race in American society, appears withdrawn and enigmatic in Van Vechten’s 1955 portrait.
Oldest of the ten visual artists pictured in the exhibition is Edward Mitchell Bannister (1828‱901), shown around 1880, who overcame discrimination to become the first African American artist to gain national recognition. Edmonia Lewis (1844fter 1909), the first professional African American sculptor, who created memorable neoclassical works while living in Rome, is pictured in a circa 1870 portrait that suggests her humble but determined nature.
Louise Dahl-Wolfe’s early 1930s photographs, including a strong profile in the current exhibition, brought self-taught Nashville sculptor William Edmondson (1874‱951) to public attention and led to an exhibition of his divinely inspired, minimalist works at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937, the first solo show there for an African American. Newman’s 1949 portrait shows Horace Pippin (1888‱946), who overcame severe World War I injuries to become perhaps the best African American self-taught artist, holding a palette and brush outside a ramshackle house, presumably in West Chester, Penn.
Among the portraits of important late Twentieth Century artists on view are abstractionist Norman Lewis, depicted in a shadowed likeness; Felrath Hines, an avant-garde painter and art conservator; and prolific writer and collagist Romare Bearden, who recreated aspects of African American life.
Newman’s memorable 1959 photograph positions Jacob Lawrence’s face among examples of his highly acclaimed art. Employing bold colors, flat forms and a deliberate naïve style, Lawrence (1917′000) chronicled the African American experience, becoming arguably the greatest of all black American artists.
Photographer Parks (1912′006), who used his camera as “a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs,” became a celebrity through his compelling images, and provided one himself in a portrait by Arnold Eagle in 1945.
The only living artist on view, Elizabeth Catlett (born 1919), has produced powerful paintings, prints and sculpture (she appears in a circa 1949 photo next to a strong sculptural profile) dealing with important social and political issues in the course of her 70-year career. Still working in Mexico, she remains committed to the idea that “art is important only to the extent that it helps in the liberation of our people.”
The exhibition includes a remarkable array of public entertainers/performers. The most powerful of all, Paul Robeson (1898‱976), appears smiling and self-confident in Doris Ulmann’s circa 1924 portrait, taken just before Robeson starred in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones . Trained as a lawyer, Robeson appeared on stage and in movies, earned international acclaim singing African American spirituals, and became a controversial activist against fascism and racism.
The showmanship and exuberant personality that earned Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878‱949) a reputation as the “World’s Greatest Tap Dancer” shines through in an animated 1935 photograph. Lisette Model’s circa 1956 image of trumpet virtuoso Louis Armstrong (1901‱971) conveys something of the ebullience that made “Satchmo” one of America’s most beloved Twentieth Century entertainers.
Portraits of pianist and crooner Nat “King” Cole, versatile singer Sarah Vaughan and blind singer/composer Ray Charles capture the grace and style that made them such popular entertainers.
Many viewers will find special pleasure in the numerous black athletes depicted in “Let Your Motto Be Resistance.” There are lots of images of boxers, beginning with controversial heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, shown in a menacing pose at the height of his career, and ending with the outspoken, supremely talented †and also highly controversial †Muhammad Ali, who first claimed the heavyweight crown in 1964, depicted skipping rope in a 1966 Parks photo.
Joe Louis, perhaps the most popular boxer of all time, is shown after a training session early in his career (around 1935), a few years before becoming longtime heavyweight champion. The “Brown Bomber” won fame and admiration for his knockout of Adolf Hitler’s symbol of Aryan supremacy, Max Schmeling, in 1938 and a string of other victories, as well as his humble demeanor outside the ring.
Black baseball players are included, led by the talented and courageous Jackie Robinson, who broke the major league color barrier in 1947 and went on to a Baseball Hall of Fame career. Rather than being shown in action on the field, he appears in a 1961 Winogrand portrait, pensively tossing a baseball while seated in an office talking on the phone and dressed in a business suit. Also on view †in uniform †are two big stars who benefited from Robinson’s trailblazing exploits, the incomparable Willie Mays, an All-Star outfielder for 20 consecutive seasons, and Henry “Hank” Aaron, whose steady power hitting led to breaking Babe Ruth’s career home run record of 714.
One of the most unforgettable images in the exhibition is by Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favorite photographer and filmmaker, no less, who depicted African American track and field star Jessie Owens poised at a starting line in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Owens’s victories in the 100- and 200-meter sprints, the 4×100 relay and the long jump destroyed the Nazi claim to Aryan supremacy and made him an international hero.
This rewarding exhibition offers valuable insights into the richness and diversity of the African American saga. By studying the faces and biographies of significant black figures, we gain fresh appreciation for photography’s role in shaping public understanding of race and status over the past 150 years.
There are thumbnail biographies and full-page reproductions of all 100 portraits, along with an insightful essay by curator Willis in the 184-page exhibition catalog, priced at $35, hardcover, and $19.95, softcover.
After closing in New York, the exhibition travels to the National Portrait Gallery from October 9 to January 6, before beginning a national tour under the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.
The International Center of Photography is at 1114 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street. For information, 212-857-0000 or www.icp.org .