Theater of Cruelty

"See me as I am"

PHOTO / How are blacks presented? A portrait photograph is far from neutral, neither guilty nor innocent – but with varying degrees of sharpness, vulnerability and complexity.


If the portrait photograph tells the story of who is remembered, how can it at the same time tell the story of those who are forgotten? For example, there is the picture documenting the song of the counter-altar Marian Anderson at the Lincoln monument in 1939 [look over. Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum Of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Kay Petersonarchives Centernmah. Rights & Reproductions.] for thousands of listeners and millions of radio listeners – a specific photograph taken by Robert S. Shurlock:

The picture shows her in profile, she stands and sings with her eyes closed, in a fur coat with a long row of microphones in front of her, engrossed and concentrated on the performance. In the background, the recognizable steps of the monument and some listeners can be seen, but the huge crowd listening to the song is not visible from the angle the photo was taken from.

Anderson's performance was an important moment in the struggle for American civil rights. The photo was taken at the same location as Martin Luther King jr. a few years later gave his famous speech «I Have a Dream». I study the photograph of her again, and it contains a "lie": She is in a brown coat with an orange outfit, but it does not appear in black and white photographs. At the same time, I do not understand why so few know about this image? I get the answer several years later from contemporary photographer Carrie Mae Weems, as in her series Slow Fade to Black (2010–11) deliberately blurred images of black singers – such as Marian Anderson – to emphasize their omission in society's memory and history, as black women are rarely found in history books.

Unfortunate portrayal of blacks

The photograph by Anderson is an example of the oldest form of photography: portrait photography. It has a lot in common with the art tradition. Portrait photography has undergone several historical changes, from studio backgrounds, artificial light and objects, poses that emphasized or captured status and personality, to more natural surroundings and layouts. But natural does not mean neutral, neither in the world of photography nor in art.

Carrie Mae Weems, Slow Fade To Black

In a larger context, portrait photography can be described as images and performances that also contain omissions and failure. If we see how blacks have been presented and depicted in Western tradition up to modern times, they are rarely depicted for their own sake, but often as part of a family portrait or photographed with their slave owner. European photography usually avoided the explicit racist exaggerations often seen on the other side of the Atlantic (with its popular characters Uncle Tom, Mammy, Jim Crow). Tendencies toward objectification, black sexuality, and the celebration of services rendered were more common (David Bindman).

MACK Press Images "The history of black civil rights in the United States has been as much a struggle for images as the struggle for rights."

Photographs in many ways gave an unfortunate portrayal of blacks, or to be more precise, photographs in the media did. Photographs taken by blacks without the stereotypical clichés existed, but were not necessarily known. It was simply not a "significant" market for them (bell hooks).

The desire to be represented and portrayed as one is, to be seen for who one is, has been central to black photographers. Many of them have been aware of the use of the camera as a tool and a weapon (especially Gordon Parks). Blacks were given the opportunity to participate in the production of images.

The author bell hooks writes: "The story of black civil rights in the United States has been as much a struggle for images as the struggle for rights." In the struggle to be rendered and portrayed in a fair way, portrait photography has a crucial position. Depicting an individual can be a meaningful form of resistance to oppression. But this is not only about the production of images, but also about the control over them: Who or what has the power over who is presented (photographed) or not – and thus remembered?

9. Dawoud Bey. 'Peg', Brooklyn, NY 1988, from Street
Portraits (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.
ISBN 978-1-913620-10-3
April 2021
€ 45 £ 40 $ 55
1. Dawoud Bey. 'A Shirtless Young Man', Brooklyn, NY
1988, from Street Portraits (MACK, 2021).

Seeing pictures of black people

In 1969, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened an exhibition that created debate: Harlem on My Mind. Instead of original works, the exhibition was a selective narrative based on reproductions of newspaper articles and street sound images, and images by black photographers (James Van Der Zee, Gordon Parks) were used as design elements. The then 21-year-old Deborah Willis (today a well-known African-American artist and photo historian) stated that she felt proud to see pictures of black people in an art museum and not only in a natural history museum, but at the same time she experienced the exhibition as conflict-filled. Others were also skeptical, and before the exhibition opened, a group of black artists demonstrated under the slogan: "Harlem on Whose Mind?"

Let me also mention a photographer who started his career in the 1970s with the series Harlem, USA, later exhibited at the Studio Museum (Harlem, 1979) and who is today a renowned photographer. His portfolio is extensive, but here I will concentrate on photos from 1988 to 1991 that were published in a photo book in April: Dawoud Bey, Street Portraits (MACK, UK). The book's portraits of African-Americans were taken in different cities, with a special positive / negative Polaroid film, which made a print of the photograph at the same time as a negative. The person who was photographed was thus allowed to keep a photograph of himself. Bey's respectful approach to the subject greatly affects the way people behave in front of the camera.

The pictures have an atmosphere of closeness, familiarity and kindness.

2. Dawoud Bey. 'A Girl with School Medals', Brooklyn, NY 1988, from Street Portraits (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

When you flip through the book, you see people of all ages represented, different professions, styles, moments, but they have one thing in common: Everyone looks straight into the camera. The eyes tell of a relaxed attention, as if they were in the middle of a conversation and stopped to be photographed, and then to continue the conversation. The pictures have an atmosphere of closeness, familiarity and kindness. Although perceived as natural and simple, it is one of the most difficult results to achieve in photography.

Bey used a similar strategy in his previous photo book Class Pictures (Aperture, 2007) which shows teenagers with different ethnic, economic and social backgrounds. To complete the project, Bey spent three weeks at each school with 45 minutes of meetings with each student where he asked them to write a short biography before the photo shoot. The book shows their biography on the left and the photograph on the right, so that the two are intertwined. What strikes me again is the authenticity, closeness and maturity. The teen portraits are serious, but it is not a constructed seriousness, but a necessary element: It creates an opportunity for the viewer to get rid of preconceived images or stereotypes and just concentrate on the photograph. All these portraits say "see me as I am".

Depicting individuals on their own terms, without an artificial setup or direction, and at the same time with a sense of familiarity, is a very difficult task in portrait photography. In both mentioned projects, these values ​​are present. The projects also reveal what lies behind them: time to listen and see. Isn't that exactly what photography is all about?


Translated by Iril Kolle

Dr. Zofia Cielatkowska is an art critic, philosopher and curator living in Oslo.

The photo books Street Portraits og Class Pictures was a part of Photo book festival Oslo 2021 (where Cielatkowska was curator) with the title Touching the Distance, Thinking in Relation: Photography as a Practice of Seeing. See also Deichman Bjørvika.


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