Photography, Film, and the African American Experience

Three Recent Publications

Jan Christian Bernabe

Making a Promised Land: Harlem in 20th-Century Photography and Film by Paula J. Massood; Bearing Witness from Another Place: James Baldwin in Turkey, with the foreword by Charles Johnson; One Shot: A Selection of Photographs by Reuben V. Burrell edited by Vanessa Thaxton-Ward.

Since its emergence in the early 19th century, photography has had a curious relationship with the African American body.  While its advent readily displaced more traditional modes of representing the black figure in painting, sculpture, and illustration, photography continued to advance dominant iconographies of black racial identity as “deviant.”

Photographic representations of black bodies in the 19th century created an expansive photographic archive that relegated African American existences to the periphery of the American landscape and body politic.  Black people were depicted, for example, as chattel inventory in photographs during the antebellum South or frozen as icons such as the mammy, sambo and pickaninny in popular media during the era of Jim Crow.

In his seminal essay, “The Body and the Archive” in the October journal, Alan Sekula points out: “Thus, photography came to establish and delimit the terrain of the other, to define both the generalized look—the typology—and the contingent instance of deviance and social pathology.” That is to say, a repressive photographic archive of blackness sustained a stranglehold on the consciousness of American (and Western) viewers and influenced the production of racial ideologies and the creation of racial typologies.

 Barron Claiborne, Couple in Raccoon Coats, from Despite the constraints associated with representing black bodies in photography, it also paradoxically proved itself to be an effective mode of challenging negative representations, especially when the camera was in the hands of those who felt first-hand the sting and consequences of negative photographic typologies of race in what Walter Benjamin calls “the age of mechanical reproduction” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Indeed, it would take visionary artists, photographers, writers, and intellectuals in the United States and abroad to create representations of the African American experience that would exceed and defy dominant expectations.  Much of this important cultural and political work was undertaken by those within the African American community as well as those outside the race who were empathetic to the struggles of African Americans.

Three recent publications revisit the promises and pitfalls associated with photography and moving image technology by exploring the critical intersections of African American race, space, and representation: Making a Promised Land: Harlem in 20th-Century Photography and Film (2012); Bearing Witness from Another Place: James Baldwin in Turkey (2012); and One Shot: A Selection of Photographs by Reuben V. Burrell (2012).  Together the books capture the power and cultural stakes of photography and film in shaping the ways African American bodies and spaces are visualized, represented and understood across the 20th century and within various predominantly black communities such as Harlem and Hampton University (Institute), and in international locales like Turkey.

Paula J. Massood focuses on Harlem and the representations of African American bodies and spaces in photographs and films in her engaging book, Making a Promised Land: Harlem in 20th-Century Photography and Film.  Photography and film produced and disseminated images of Harlem as a mecca for African Americans in the first few decades of the 20th century.  Many of these projects were shaped by ideas of racial uplift spearheaded by W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, and other African Americans who embraced the creation of positive and respectable images of African Americans as an antidote to the regressive visual archives of blackness that existed beyond the boundaries of Harlem, indeed throughout the United States.

Harlem was a space saturated with the possibility of transformation; it ultimately fostered the efflorescence of a vibrant African American community of writers, artists, and intellectuals, producing the Harlem Renaissance. Those who followed the idea of the “New Negro” that Du Bois espoused were also responsible for the production of representations that asserted African American equality more broadly, Masgood says.

The African American community in Harlem turned to the arts, literature, and photography and film to advance notions of racial uplift.  Unlike other forms of cultural production, photography and film were particularly effective in producing and disseminating realistic, and seemingly truthful, images of Harlem and its inhabitants, as the very nature of the technologies is contingent on their indexical properties; that is, those pictured within the film and photographic frames indexed real bodies that had at some point stood before the camera.

Formal projects like Du Bois’ Types of American Negroes, Georgia, U.S.A. displayed for the 1900 Paris Exposition as well as more vernacular photographs by photographers such as James Van Der Zee picture the vibrancy and civility of African Americans (Massood curiously devotes very little space in her book to Van Der Zee’s archive). These photographs sought to reconfigure the legibility of black bodies in a post-Reconstruction era.  The challenge to reconfigure racial iconographies through photography also runs through the other two book projects, most notably in the photographs by Reuben V. Burrell of life at Hampton University.

Massood analyzes photographic and cinematic productions that center Harlem and its residents, producing a picture of Harlem as a space of constant transformation over the whole of the 20th century.  Harlem, as Massood argues, embodied a space of racial contestation, where ideas and images of blackness were constantly under scrutiny. If the “New Negro” dominated discourses of African American citizenship during the earlier part of the 20th century, it was not without its aesthetic tensions, as Massood writes, “between vernacular or folk forms and the more conventional models preferred by the black bourgeois.”

Massood pays specific attention to the genre of gangster films of the 1930s set in Harlem and produced primarily for an African American audience. These early gangster films embody the tensions of African American modernity and cultural production in Harlem, namely the tensions between highbrow cultural productions vs. lowbrow (or popular) vernacular entertainment. In representing the mobility of the black bodies within the gangster genre in Harlem, Massood contends that these films “articulated discourses of community and enterprise that were specific to the uplift ideology.” This is an interesting claim given the negative iconography of the black male gangster.

From early gangster films of the 1930s and photographs of children and teens in the decade that followed, Massood sets up the foundations for more contemporary images and ideas of Harlem that are examined in later chapters.  If ideas of racial uplift underscored the creative productivity of the Harlem Renaissance, the opposite can be said of the photographs of urban black youth of the 1940s in Harlem.  Indeed, Massood returns us back to the power of the photograph to produce racial iconographies of African American criminality associated with the black urban youth.  Photographs and films that pictured, more often than not, black boys in group shots, boys without parents or caught within acts of criminality effectively transformed the image of Harlem into a deviant, criminal ridden location, exacerbated by photojournalists and editorial magazine projects that disseminated images of the black urban youth as the “products of environments Donald (Donald Thompson) on the streets of Harlem in The Quiet One (Film Documents, 1948).Malcolm Little/Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) on 125th Street in Malcolm X (Warner Bros. and 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 1992).marked by poverty, criminality, and family dysfunction.”

The entanglements of space, race and deviancy persisted beyond the 1940s. These images were also advanced by visual producers within the African American community, latching onto facile tropes of blackness to produce and disseminate ideas about Harlem and urban culture.  Starting in the 1970s with blaxploitation films such as Larry Cohen's Black Caesar (1973) and continuing through to the 1990s with Spike Lee's Jungle Fever (1990) and Mario Van Peebles’ New Jack City (1991), black urban representations in the films reveal the deep cultural investments to the space of Harlem. Without Harlem, these characters could not exist.  Massood’s critical reading of the films remind us of how older conventions of producing black bodies within urban spaces are complexly intertwined with contemporary versions. Unlike the archive of black bodies in photographs and films in the first few decades of the 20th century, these contemporary African American films reveal the complexity of Harlem and black urban identities. Black gangsters, urban youth, and all the identities that lie in-between get re-signified in the contemporary productions.  Massood argues, for example, that the protagonist in Black Caesar can be read as a “black hero in Harlem decimated by crime, poverty, and decay.”  Jungle Fever and New Jack City, as Massood claims, are films that hearken to older aesthetic conventions—the former, to bourgeois sensibilities, and the latter introduces audiences to exceedingly complex, if not problematic characters such as the black gangster figure. The black gangbanger ironically calls into question the very notion of Harlem as a collective and communal African American space that was promoted during the Harlem Renaissance.

Massood closes her book by examining the ways contemporary visual filmmakers and photographers continue to reconfigure Harlem in their work through the framework of “nostalgia.” While the Harlem of Du Bois, Locke, Hughes and others has long disappeared, Harlem of the present continues to be transformed by processes of urban gentrification and capitalism. 

Massood critiques Bernie Clairborne’s striking image, Couple in Raccoon Coats (2002) as gesturing at the aesthetics of James Van Der Zee and more specifically to African American bourgeois sensibilities.  Published in Vibe magazine in 2002, image at first glance re/produces respectable-looking, middle-class African American bodies.  In the image there also are intimations of transformations and development projects in Harlem that have continued to change its socio-economic landscape, displacing black people who cannot afford to live there.  This and other “nostalgic recollections” via photographic and filmic productions of Harlem suggest a loss of Harlem as an African American cultural center, or at the very least as a space of that can no longer be confined to an unattainable ideal.  Massood does well to produce a dialogic relationship between contemporary visual productions and the archives and discourses of the past.

Closing her book, Massood examines the photography of Alice Attie in a series aptly entitled “Harlem on the Verge.”  As Massood writes, Attie’s photographs “begs the question, ‘on the verge of what?’” If Massood’s book has conveyed anything to its readers, it is that Harlem continues to be in a continuous state of flux. This complex and dynamic aesthetic sensibility is found in Attie’s series.  Attie’s photographs of black urban youth, as Massood notes, “returns us to tropes of citizenship and belonging that were a core component of the New Negro ideology in the early 20th century and that continue to be one of the defining factors in African American […] self definition.” Images of black urban youth in Attie’s photographs symbolize the continuous making and remaking of Harlem, as both the agents of future change or as sources for new visual typologies—both good and bad—that have defined what it means to be African American in the United States.

If the space of Harlem delimited the boundaries of racial identification and representations of urban African Americans, other spaces beyond Harlem, indeed beyond the United States, bestowed a sense of freedom and creative fodder for African American artists like James Baldwin, especially amid the turmoil and struggles emerging out of the Civil Rights Movement of
the 1960s and 1970s.

Turkey became a country that Baldwin—a literary icon and civil rights figurehead in his own right—retreated to periodically for a decade starting in 1961.  Bearing Witness from Another Place: James Baldwin in Turkey was produced to accompany the groundbreaking exhibition of the same name at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle, which featured candid and rare snapshots by Turkish photographer Sedat Pakay.  The companion exhibition catalog is composed of several thoughtful essays by scholars and friends of Baldwin, and closes with an interview with Sedat Pakay, Baldwin's photographer during his time in Turkey.Sedat Pakay, James Baldwin in Turkey. Courtesy Northwest African American Museum

Baldwin granted Pakay unprecedented access to his life in Turkey and pictured him at ease in his adopted homeland. After a fortuitous initial meeting with Baldwin at a mutual friend’s apartment where Baldwin had just finished his novel Another Country and where he was being hosted, Baldwin allowed Pakay two hours to photograph him.  As Pakay recalls in "An Appreciation of Sedat Pakay", “he was very accommodating. No questioning of my requests, agreeing to all of my demands.” A unique friendship between photographer and his subject had formed that evening that would result in the production of a candidly intimate archive of photographs of “Jimmy,” as his close friends called him, during his decade in Turkey.

While a coterie of other African American expatriates moved to Paris to work creatively, Turkey beckoned to Baldwin in ways that allowed him to express himself unrestrained and allowed him the freedom to just be.  This “clarifying distance,” as Charles Johnson writes in the “Foreword,” and the delights of being elsewhere is pictured in Pakay’s mostly black and white photographs throughout the book.

In some photographs, Pakay photographed Baldwin among other Turkish people, ostensibly looking out of place because of his skin color, but his relaxed body and his earnest gaze outside the photographic frame convey a curious comfort, an effortless state of being that would perhaps not hold true were he in the United States where his race and his gay sexuality would provoke derision. Magdalena Zaborowska reveals in her contribution to the book that Baldwin never renounced his national identity even though he spent extended periods of time outside of the United States.  “Exile, then, like his writing and mobility, became of form of dwelling to Baldwin,” she says.

Sedat Pakay, James Baldwin in Turkey. Courtesy Northwest African American MuseumSedat Pakay, James Baldwin in Turkey. Courtesy Northwest African American MuseumSedat Pakay, James Baldwin in Turkey. Courtesy Northwest African American MuseumReuben Burrell, Hampton Institute student Billy Smith, 1940s.Reuben Burrell, Duke Ellington with Hampton Institute students, c. late 1950s-early 1960s.For readers of Baldwin's literature, the photographs and essays in Bearing Witness from Another Place offer an important context to Baldwin’s writing and his inimitable persona.  The decade that Baldwin spent on and off in Turkey allowed Baldwin to explore and write about themes of race, sexuality, and citizenship unencumbered by the constraints he might have experienced elsewhere. Always one to push boundaries of what could or could not be written in his works, Baldwin's decision to live and work in Turkey is perhaps not as far flung as we might think, given the type of fearlessness that he embodied as a writer, “never lingering,” as Brian Carter writes in "Introduction: Tarry No Longer", “in the expectations heaped on him as an American, a black male, a writer, a queer man, a leader, or a son.” Pakay’s photographs show Baldwin at home in a world that he wholeheartedly embraced and that embraced him.

The exhibition, Bearing Witness From Another  Place:  James Baldwin in Turkey, Photographs by Sedat Pakay, is on view at the Northwest African American Museum, October 20, 2012 – September 29, 2013

This theme of “home” is featured prominently in the photographs in One Shot: A Selection of Photographs by Reuben V. Burrell. It is not “home” in the traditional, domestic sense, but one composed of the myriad spaces and people of  waterfront campus of Hampton University (formerly Hampton Institute) — “our home by the sea” as it’s affectionately called by members of the university family, and also subjects in the community of Hampton, Virginia, and its neighboring city, Newport News. 

The title of this volume of Burrell's photographs, One Shot, is a little misleading, given the many thousands of photographs Burrell shot over a tenure of 60 years as the university photographer, only a sliver of which are featured in the book.  Though those who know the photographer understand that Burrell's nickname is “One Shot Burrell,” an honorific nickname that surely emerged from his autodidactic mastery of photography and, I imagine, his ubiquitous presence at the many campus events that he photographed for the university. (The “One Shot” nickname derives from Burrell’s ability to get a great shot quickly on the first take — ed.)

One Shot is composed of a selection of photographs that picture all facets of campus life — portraits and candid shots of honorary guests of the school that included Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Marian Anderson, Duke Ellington, and James Baldwin, among others; formal group portraits of students, clubs, and sports during various eras, and more casual and vernacular shots. What readers will quickly surmise is Burrell’s importance to the university, yet the selection of Burrell’s photographs in One Shot also reveal his interest in documenting the surrounding areas away from the university. African American-owned businesses, and locations and civic events frequented by African Americans; newlyweds, church choirs, and debutantes are also subjects of Burrell’s camera. 

Arranged thematically and spanning several decades, One Shot is a remarkable time capsule of images that ties interestingly to the New Negro, middle-class sensibilities that W.E.B. Du Bois espoused and promoted.  That is to say, even during the tumultuous decades of the Civil Rights Movement, Burrell’s photographs picture well-mannered and cultured students of Hampton.  Burrell’s photographic collection is an optimistic vision of the future of the African American community, within which he locates himself among the students, faculty and staff and community members. What we see in Burell’s photographs is a vision of “home.” Burrell's photographic archive is now housed in the Hampton University Museum and Archives.

Reuben Burrell. Hampton Institute art professor Lorraine Bolton, c. 1960On the occasion of his 94th birthday, Reuben Burrell recounted his own experience: The Griot Speaks.

Jan Christian Bernabe is an independent scholar, editor and curator who is based in Chicago.