Welcoming Underexposed Black Photographers Into the Canon

Elegant in a burnt-orange linen dress and wearing necklaces of her own design, Coreen Simpson, 82, said that because she was raised in foster homes, “I have always felt like an outsider — which is a good thing for a photographer.” But as a Black artist of an older generation, she was made to feel like an outsider in other ways, too. “I’ve wanted my own book for a long time,” she said, during an interview in her Brooklyn apartment. “I just wanted a serious book on my work, because I think I deserve it, to tell you the truth.” Thanks to the Vision & Justice project, that deficit is about to be corrected.

Vision & Justice is an enterprise founded by Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, an art historian who believes, she said recently, that images can be powerful in “pushing back against entrenched injustice.” In 2016, she guest edited an issue of Aperture Magazine on that theme. A runaway success, it was reprinted multiple times and incorporated into many university syllabuses, including in the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and at Harvard, where Lewis is an associate professor of the history of art and architecture and of African and African American Studies.

Aperture Books has now announced plans to publish, beginning in October, a series of Vision & Justice monographs (among them, one on Simpson). “The core mission is to build a richer, more racially inclusive history of photography,” said Michael Famighetti, editor in chief of Aperture Magazine. “There is a restorative or reparative mission. Sarah correctly identifies that there are many great artists who haven’t been exhibited or haven’t been published with critical writing.”

Lewis credits Frederick Douglass and her own grandfather for inspiring the Vision & Justice project. Douglass, who escaped from slavery in 1838, was photographed 160 times, making him the most photographed American of the 19th century. He argued that his dignified likeness would counteract the flood of racist depictions of African Americans. “He’s talking about the use of images to write people out of the human family, and he’s talking about the use of images to write them back in,” she said.

And Lewis’s grandfather? He was expelled from high school after he questioned why there were no Black people in his textbooks.

The new book series (which plans future partnerships with other publishers) aims to enlarge the photographic canon. “Many of the images made by Black photographers were unknown,” said Deborah Willis, a professor at N.Y.U. who has conducted pioneering research in the field. “How do we even the playing field and the archive? How do we rethink making images of stories that are community-based?”

Young Black photographers today are courted by museums and galleries, but they are often unaware of their overlooked predecessors. “Vision & Justice is a bible to what has been unseen,” Tyler Mitchell, 28, said of the magazine and the forthcoming books. (His portrait of Beyoncé was the first Vogue cover shot by a Black photographer.)

Mitchell is on the advisory board of the book project, along with other prominent Black photographers, writers and scholars. “I didn’t know much about Carrie Mae Weems or Dawoud Bey until I was 19 or 20,” he said. (Both serve with him on the advisory board.)

He added, “I found all of it through Deb Willis. I grew up with Tumblr, an early version of Instagram, where people curate on the basis of their taste, and I was influenced especially by Ryan McGinley and his images of free youth, beautiful youth, nihilistic youth, who were often white.”

vCredit…Awol Erizku via Vogue.com

Today, the gatekeepers have become less powerful, as the rapid advancement of self-publishing and social media enables a far greater circulation of images.

The Vision and Justice monographs will feature older and younger commentators to encourage intergenerational dialogue. Similarities between the work of young Black photographers and their predecessors are often accidental, because the images of the elders were inaccessible. Some of the head shots that Awol Erizku, 35, created as a sophomore at Cooper Union of retro-styled young Black people resemble pictures Simpson took of the B-boys she photographed at hip-hop nights at the Roxy and other places in New York in the ’80s, when she was documenting the creative fashions worn by African American New Yorkers, many of them in Harlem.

Erizku said he recalled seeing Simpson’s images for the first time in a presentation for Vision & Justice and thinking of how, with an image like “Alva With Clock” from 1991, “I could see the conceptual underpinnings of that work, and I saw someone else was also very much interested in what I’m interested in.”

Few Black photographers of previous generations are recognized as central to the history of the medium, with Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava chief among them. Lewis was thrilled to meet Parks when she was a college student. “I remember the sense of concrete reality that I was in the cultural landscape,” she said. “It was no longer abstract.” Since Parks’s death in 2006, the Gordon Parks Foundation, working with the Steidl publishing company, has perpetuated his legacy through a series of new books and reissues that feature fresh critical assessments, such as the forthcoming, sumptuously produced “Born Black.”

Vision & Justice aspires to achieve something comparable for less famous artists. “Race Stories: Essays on the Power of Images,” the first book in the series, celebrates a critic, not a photographer. It is an essay collection by Maurice Berger, who died of Covid in 2020. (The pieces were originally published in the former Lens blog of The Times.) Edited posthumously by Berger’s husband, the curator and scholar Marvin Heiferman, they explore the role of visual images in perpetuating and combating racism. Along with the volume on Simpson, Lewis and Aperture will publish the first monograph on Doug Harris, who joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1964 and was instructed in photography by Richard Avedon.

Although, as Simpson maintains, an outsider’s perspective can be valuable for a photographer, the privileged view delivers special rewards. “With Doug Harris and other movement photographers, we see the slow work of movement building and relationship building,” said Leigh Raiford, professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, who is a series editor along with Lewis and Willis. “Often we see photographs of demonstrations and confrontations between protesters and the police. Here you see the unsexy work of social movements.”

“Doug Harris is in the Harlem community,” Willis said. “There is a photograph he made of Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer sitting at the Theresa Hotel. I didn’t know that they were there together.”

The Vision & Justice book series is just one prong of Lewis’s project, which also features what she calls “convenings,” supported by the Ford Foundation, where experts from various disciplines discuss how to achieve full citizenship for all Americans with an emphasis on the power of imagery.

For Lewis, photography is, to use Parks’s phrase, “a choice of weapons” in a long campaign. “What is special about Sarah is her vision for the future of the field,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard, who credits Lewis with “an academic entrepreneurial vision.”

“Her field is the study of African American art,” he said. “Sarah has the instinct to say, how can we ensure that this field becomes firmly embedded within art history long after the initial energy has waned?”

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