1. Gordon Parks:
The first African-American photographer hired at Life and Vogue magazines, Gordon Parks was a prolific photographer, writer, composer and filmmaker. The photo essays he produced primarily for LIFE magazine from the 1940s to 1970s focused on issues related to poverty, race, segregation and the lives of African Americans. In addition, Parks was also a celebrated composer, author, and filmmaker who interacted with many of the most prominent people of his era – from politicians and artists to celebrities and athletes. In 1969, became the first African American to write and direct a Hollywood feature film based on his bestselling novel The Learning Tree. This was followed in 1971 by the hugely successful motion picture Shaft.
Born in Kansas in 1912, Parks developed a style that made him one of the most celebrated photographers of his age, allowing him to break the color line in professional photography while creating expressive images that highlighted the social and economic impact of racism. To learn more, visit The Gordon Parks Foundation.
Sources: The Gordon Parks Foundation, Wikipedia, everydayeyecandy.com
2. Addison Scurlock
Addison Scurlock came to Washington DC in 1900 where he was a 17 year-old apprentice to a prominent photographer in the city. In 1907, 24-year-old Scurlock won his first award, a photography gold medal at the Jamestown Exposition in Jamestown, Virginia. In 1911 he opened The Scurlock Photographic Studio on U Street, in the heart of the African American theater district. He established himself as the preeminent African American photographer in the nation’s capital and was regularly hired by US government agencies.
Over the decades Scurlock photographed nationally prominent African Americans such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Archie Alexander, Billy Eckstine, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Lillian Evanti, and Sterling Brown.
In 1939 he took arguably his most famous photograph, the now iconic image of Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial. Over time he also became the photographer of prominent white Americans such as President Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s and by the 1950s, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower.
When Carter G. Woodson, black historian and Negro History Week founder began to promote this new observance, he sent Scurlock’s portraits of prominent African American leaders to schools across the nation.
Scurlock was the first photographer to document the importance of black life in Washington, D.C. His photos captured black culture in its complexity and showed black people as they saw themselves.
Sources: The smithsonianmag.com, blackpast.org, Wikipedia, everydayeyecandy.com
3. Jamel Shabazz
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Jamel Shabazz documented urban New York for more than 40 years. Inspired by photographers Leonard Freed, James Van Der Zee, and Gordon Parks, he photographed the history and culture of the African American community.
In 1980, he began a mission to extensively document life in New York City. Photographs of young people in 80’s hip-hop style are juxtaposed with images that address social problems: the scantily-clad backside of a prostitute leaning into a car; a homeless man sleeping in the doorway of a shuttered Holiday Inn in Chinatown; and a suspect apprehended by the police in an attempted robbery.
Shabazz considered himself a social documentarian, aware that city life and culture are inevitably infused with political and social meaning.
“As a child coming of age during the turbulent 1960s, I became a witness early on to political and social issues in America,” he said. “Later, it was the work of documentary photographer Leonard Freed that first exposed me to what a social documentarian was on a more personal level. In his award-winning book and personal diary ‘Black in White America,’ it became clear to me how a photographer could use his or her abilities to capture images that address an array of social and political issues. Freed was skilled in that area, and provided me with a template for what I would do later on.”
Sources: jamelshabazz.com, Wikipedia, artsy.net, lens.blogs.nytimes.com, everydayeyecandy.com
4. Moneta Sleet, Jr.
Best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the funeral of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Moneta Sleet, Jr. started working for Johnson Publishing in 1955, where he shot for Ebony and Jet Magazine, capturing, among others Muhammad Ali, Stevie Wonder and Billie Holiday. He also shot the funeral of Malcolm X.
Sleet Jr. documented a revolution and captured many of the images that defined the struggle for racial equality in the United States and Africa.
In 1968, when Mrs. Coretta Scott King learned that the small pool of photographers covering her husband’s funeral did not include a black photographer, she sent out word that if Mr. Sleet were not allowed in the church and given a choice vantage point, there would be no photographers.
During Dr. King’s funeral, he captured Dr. King’s daughter, Bernice, lying across her mother’s lap with a haunting look on her face. The photo was considered such a powerful image it was picked up by The Associated Press and covered nationally. Mr. Sleet won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a black journalist.
”I wasn’t there as an objective reporter,” he once said. ”I had something to say and was trying to show one side of it. We didn’t have any problems finding the other side.”
Sources: Wikipedia, nytimes.com, pulitzer.org/winner, everydayeyecandy.com
5. James Van Der Zee
James Van Der Zee was a Harlem-based photographer, known for his glamorous portraits and depictions of African American life of the middle class in Harlem in the 1920s and 30s.
Most of his work was commercial studio: weddings and funerals (including pictures of grieving families), family groups, lodges, clubs, and people simply wanted a photo of themselves in fine clothes. He photographed 20th century black activist Marcus Garvey, entertainer/dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and renowned black poet Countee Cullen.
By the early 1930s Van Der Zee’s photography work declined partly because of the strained economic circumstances of the time and partly because of the growing popularity of personal cameras. Van Der Zee switched to shooting passport photos, photo restorations, and miscellaneous photography jobs for the next two decades.
In 1967 James VanDerZee’s work was rediscovered by photographers and photo-historians and he then received national attention. Van Der Zee came out of retirement to photograph celebrities who in turn promoted his work in exhibits around the nation. His images became the subject of books and documentaries.
He labeled each of his photos with a signature and date, which would prove to be important for future documentation.
Sources: Wikipedia, howardgreenberg.com, bioggraphy.com, blackpast.org and britannica.com, everydayeyecandy.com
Below: photos in order: Gordon Parks, Addison Scurlock, Jamel Shabazz, Moneta Sleet, Jr and James Van Der Zee