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FunTimes Magazine

5 Historic African American Fashion Photographers You Should Know

Jun 03, 2021 10:25AM ● By Anand Subramanian

Fashion Photography has gone through a series of metamorphoses that have expanded the industry to an unimaginable proportion. This powerful medium has celebrated every spectrum of elegance and has broadened the definition of beauty. The level of acceptance in today's industry is something to be proud of, but it wasn't always this way. At times, the fashion industry has failed to recognize true talents in front and behind the lens. But some photographers have risen above the obstacles and established a strong aesthetic foundation on which many young Black photographers can create unapologetic work. Let us honor five historic Black fashion photographers whose work defined Black fashion aesthetics and culture, while also giving voice to oppression.

Kwame Brathwaite

Kwame is the photographer who popularized the phrase "Black is beautiful,

" and has created a body of work that references Black skin and its authentic representation in the fashion world. Born in Brooklyn, he created a legacy of perfecting skin processing techniques that made Black skin stand out in photographs. Although his love of jazz deeply influenced his visual medium, his message of empowerment and freedom was echoed through his subjects and aesthetics. His work aided in the advancement of one of the 1960s' most influential cultural movements, "Black is Beautiful," in which Black men and women embraced their natural hairstyles and wardrobe. With a modern perspective, the images he created are classified as timeless and classics, which appeal to today's viewers.

Figure 1  - Model with an Afro hairstyle, Photographed by Kwame Brathwaite


Florestine Perrault Collins

Florestine's work gave visibility to Black women in New Orleans while navigating gender expectations and bias. She will be remembered as one of only 101 Black female photographers listed in the 1920 United States Census. She began her photography career at the age of 14 and had to pass as White to work as an assistant to White photographers, allowing her to open her studio in 1923. The clientele was limited despite her 30-year career due to her race and gender. However, this never stopped her from creating a unique individuality for women of color, showcasing their glamour and rawness, which directly challenged the White stereotypes. Her early works depicted young Black women with flower props and distinguished backdrops, challenging the contemporary portraiture mainstream.

Figure 2 - Self Portrait, Photographed by Florestine Perrault Collins

Hugh Bell

Hugh Bell was a well-known commercial and fashion photographer who was best known in the 1950s and 1960s for his portraits of jazz musicians. Throughout his career, he captured many colors of the African American experience, which included works like the "Jazz Giants" series and the stage production of Jean Genet's "The Blacks". His rich workflow includes female nudes, which he photographed for both commercial and artistic purposes. These portraits represented the Black power, women's liberation, and the Civil Rights movements. A selection of his work was assembled into an issue of Avant-Grande Magazine, titled "Bell's Belles". On the other spectrum of gender, Bell photographed suited Black men and stylishly clothed Black Woman involved in allegoric and deep thought. Throughout his career, he focused on creating a narrative that was aesthetically powerful in terms of showcasing the equality of Black people in the global fashion backdrop.

Figure 3  - Early Morning, Photographed by Hugh Bell

James Van Der Zee

James Augustus Van Der Zee was an American Photographer who was the leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He was one of the first people in Lenox to own a camera, and he made it a point to master the craft through constant practice. His work was flawless in terms of both technical and aesthetic abilities. The rising Black middle class was a recurring theme in all his work, which he depicted with utmost beauty and perfection. The photographs represented an America in which Black culture was evolving into its own distinct culture, breaking the racial stereotypes projected by racialized society. While his documentary work gave voice to the uprising racism, his fashion work changed the narrative of Black history from devastation to glamour and authenticity, including the traditional Victorian Style.

Figure 4 - Evening Attire, Photographed by James Van Der Zee.

Anthony Barboza

Anthony Barboza is one of the most influential African American photographers of the 1960s and 1970s, whose creative mastery led to commercial and artistic success. He moved to New York City at the age of 19 to study photography under Hugh Bell, a successful Black photographer, to attain creative and technical experience. Working with Hugh introduced him to Adger Cowans, who introduced him to “The Kamoinge Workshop,” which was founded by Roy De Carava to promote photography at a time when African Americans were discriminated against and excluded from commercial workflow. His distinct perspective was achieved through the careful use of light and shadow contrast, artistic manipulation of the background, and modern composition techniques. Like many other Black artists, his fashion work takes a critical and aesthetic look at the African Diaspora in terms of race, gender, social issues, and politics, while also inviting viewers to engage in terms of self-realization.

Figure 5 - Toukie Smith model, Photographed by Anthony Barboza.

 Anand Subramanian is a freelance photographer and content writer based out of Tamil Nadu, India. Having a background in Engineering always made him curious about life on the other side of the spectrum. He leapt forward towards the Photography life and never looked back. Specializing in Documentary and  Portrait photography gave him an up-close and personal view into the complexities of human beings and those experiences helped him branch out from visual to words. Today he is mentoring passionate photographers and writing about the different dimensions of the art world.

Read more from Anand Subramanian:

How to Create a Narrative in Documentary Photography

Entering the Inner Sanctum: Exploring the Art of Portraits

Climbing a Mountain, Literally: How Bhutan Helped Me Achieve Sobriety - Personal Piece