(Image: W. W. Norton & Company)
Whether expressed in the archives of the Schomburg Center in Harlem, New York, or the African-American Research Library in Atlanta, Georgia, interest in the history of the black experience in America is resurgent. Seeking to understand themselves beyond the narrative du jour of slavery and Jim Crow, some contemporary scholars and archivists are revising black history through the nuanced lenses of African-American photographers.
"I was fascinated by images I saw of my family dating back to the 1800s; of my great-grand parents down to my grandmother - fascinated by the beauty" says Duane Cramer, a noted photographer living in San Francisco who has snapped everyone from Bill Clinton to Freda Payne and Willie Brown. "I was always awestruck by the power of the imagery ... my sister and I, we knew how people looked - we knew what they did, and learned how fortunate we were to have such a collection dating back so many centuries." Pointing out the fact that most African-Americans have no such illustrated records of their own family history, Cramer says "I would always ask my mother about these pictures ... who are they?"
Curator, photographer, author and scholar Deborah Willis, knows a few things about the filmed lives of African-Americans. She is the award-winning author of "Reflections in Black," a prodigious book published in 2000, which documents the photographed lives of African-Americans by African-Americans, 1840 to the present. Willis is the chair of the photography and imaging department at the Tisch School of the Arts, and in the lead-up to the eventful 2008 presidential election, she penned the best-selling book, "Obama: The Historic Campaign in Photographs."
Madame C.J. Walker, ca. 1914 by Addison Scurlock.
Out now is her latest treatise - "Posing Beauty: African-American Images from the 1890's to the Present," a handsomely-bound book published by Norton, which, she says, "explores the ways in which our contemporary understanding of beauty has been informed by photographers and artists ..."
A Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow, Willis says she started out writing the book with a list of theoretical questions, some of which were: What is Beauty? Is it tangible? Does beauty matter?
Following a request through her secretary, Willis made time for a lengthy conversation; discussing some of the more unexpected aspects of what it once meant, and means now, to be black and beautiful in America.
Max Eternity: I notice that you say you don't attempt to define beauty in your book. Still, I'd like to know: If you have one, what is your personal definition of beauty?