feature: jeanne moutoussamy-ashe, the fortune in her photography & intelligence

March 8, 2016
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Those black-&-white photographs that prompts the onlooker to turn up the visual volume from a peep into a studious look at Daufuskie Island is due to Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe’s photographic sense of settling with those whom she is photographing. With the modern guidance of being driven by instant gratification. The patience which comes with seeing into Jeanne’s photography is about the dignity rising into cultural spaces. It is a space where the photographer is respecting those that are being photographed. In today’s time. The camera can be pushed into the moment. There is a desensitizing, impatient tolerance hovering over so many photographers with a profusion of photographs being dumped into a landfill that is wide, as well as deep with plenty of Internet space. In this particular case, where patience wins, Jeanne’s photographs are on a culture of people, the Gullah, which are moments from 1977 to 1981. (The Gullah are a community of Black people living on the coastal areas of South Carolina & Georgia, whose ancestors were African slaves with a direct line to the Atlantic slave trade.)

However, the sensitivity in her lens is culturally careful to Daufuskie Island, the children & adults of the Gullah community who are living there, while being dignified by a photographer’s intentions. You can see the blending of languages that they speak in their faces, the consistent pride that they offer to their land, where they cultivate it to feed themselves, sustain businesses, & live their lives. Jeanne photographed the heritage of a breathing Black community in the United States without exploitation.

By Shaun La*, AFROPUNK contributor

Women in Photography. Black Women in Photography:
Women in photography has always had to deal with an uneven historical existence—it has been biased as well. For as long as this medium has been unwinding (190 plus years), the full appreciation for women photographers has met resistance from men who controlled the business, art & outlets for photography. Just to slightly examine this traditional imbalance of, it is a “White Man’s World” in photography, remember this: Julia Margaret Cameron’s photography met a fair share of discouragement in the 1860’s. She did find a prize of success & support within her family, community of artists & philosophers. Yet, her need to protect her work through copyrighting it, was a surprise to a European society that promoted the white man as the professional photographer. Julia was white & British, from a noble family, who started her lens career at the age of 48, after being gifted a camera by her daughter.

If you take this kind of traditional ditching & resistance that Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographic works had to endure because of her gender, then the Black woman would fall into the back of a long, deep, dark cave with her photographic works being routinely unappreciated, misunderstood, unexplored & undervalued.

Blossum, 1979, silver gelatin print, ©Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe

Traditionally, sexism has a lengthy past. The division of man’s superiority & woman’s secondary role has roots in photography that is attached to a societal order that has followed the signs of the times; racism has always been a land where a white man’s dominance & a white woman’s support of such dominance has been planted into society’s soil—this kind of controlling of sowing, when looked at from a historical angle, overshadows the growth of Black photographers, worldwide. Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe’s book-work Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers (originally released in 1986, publishers, Dodd, Mead & Co, republished by Writers and Readers, 1992), is a scholarly effort to enlighten, uproot & plant new seeds into a world with the hope that it grows from the historical context, comprehending the fact about Black American women who were photographers & who operated cameras during the early years of Photography—they did their photography, professionally, artfully. Her book-work in a way, overcomes the historical habit of society shunning Black women photographers & their strong photography which was overlooked & did not share or receive the small amounts of praise that some white women photographers have received throughout the history of photography. These Black American women photographers & their works completely fell away from a distance of being substantiated by the white men who were covered with recognition, awards, power & the uncontested logic of defining what an “Eye” is suppose to photograph by their standards—standards that rarely respect Black photographers as a whole, but selectively noticing one or two Black photographers (typically a Black man) who made it through & into the mainstream or art circles that is the axis of so-called good & great photography. 

In a literary form, Jeanne’s contribution to Black women photographers who built the foundation for her & other Black women photographers of today, is compelling. Her briefings on Elizabeth (Tex) Williams (the main photographer for the Women’s Army Corp, a division in the U.S. Army) to Winifred Hall Allen (a photographer who photographed portrait moments in time during the Harlem Renaissance) are just two photographers from a collection of Black women featured in her book–all of which is well-deserving attention donated to Black women photographers from the middle of the 19th century & pausing at the late 20th century (1860’s to 1980).

Above: Cousins, silver gelatin print, ©Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe

Jeanne’s book-work takes on a sizable time frame in photography. The adjoining knowledge that she connects is that these Black women photographers were just as capable of being professionally adequate or artistically expressive as any other race or gender. Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers establishes a point of discussion that goes beyond the pages of her book, because the method of forgetting about so many Black women photographers is a quiet area in the history of photography. Even though this book does give a very bright light to Black women photographers making their way to some success through a male dominated medium & business. One could only speculate on how many other Black women photographers, & their works that were ignored & undocumented by the experts or historians of photography before Jeanne placed some recognition into their accomplishments. Some Black women photographers did not get the proper credit that they should have earned, due to their husbands or the men that they worked alongside of, placing their name as the sole photographer behind their photographs; furthermore, this waters the notion about this medium called photography being a craft for men to practice without interruption from their wives, sisters, daughters or mothers. As insular as this notion may appear in our modern world, Jeanne’s book-work is a terrific counter to such a way of thinking & it is a reminder needed in order to fuel the present & future of photography with the energy to preserve the Black women’s photographic works from 150 plus years ago. Also, this reminder should extend into appreciating Black women photographers of today.

Black men photographers can barely gain equal acknowledgements from a white establishment that sways the mainstream media & artistic winds of success to be customized into an approval by non-Black editors of newspapers, magazines & from curators at museums or the politics that can directly & indirectly disregard the Black man’s photography; therefore, the Black women who practices photography has to battle the same establishment, as well as deconstruct sexism to even out the field of opportunity—all for the sake of rebuilding the conception that they are not just Black & a woman, but first & foremost, a Photographer with the ability to do good & great photography.

Her givings:
Jeanne’s 40 plus years in photography is an intimation to her educated Eye. What you can experience through her photography, is her perspective, which honors the extent in the moment. She has a solid assemblage of book-work. From, The African Flower: Singing of Angels (2001, self-published with funding provided by Nestle USA) to Intimate Portraits (2008, catalog, published by Bill Hodges Gallery), Jeanne’s Eye does not back down from the seriousness & grasping competence, which follows her exquisite photography.

Consequently, as you gravitate into Jeanne’s photography, you will coexist with her work. There is an apprising sentimentality commingling between the onlooker & the photographer. The finalization, the moment. Perhaps her most auspiciously, personal, book-work is, Daddy and Me: A Photo Story of Arthur Ashe and His Daughter, Camera (released in 1993, publisher, Alfred A. Knopf). This specific book is delicate with its black-&-white photographs arriving to a familial visual vibe. In this book, her husband, the Hall-of-Fame professional tennis player, Arthur Ashe (July 10, 1943-February 6, 1993) & their daughter Camera are infinite in photographs, while being viewed through levels of togetherness (even when some of the photographs show only one of the two subjects in a frame), reflectively bonding as a Black family being sensitively photographed by a Black woman—his wife, her mother, their matriarch.

Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe’s photography is growing & thriving with exhibitions, books, awards & recognition. It is as if every thread of accomplishing success that she earns, evolves into a demonstration of sharing her accolades with those Black American women photographers that she wrote about in her book, Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers. She has not lost the historical importance of their bravery nor did she miss out on their priceless contributions, which helped to inaugurate the credence of Black women in today’s societies, from all over this world, being capable of becoming a successful photographer (amateur, professional, hobbyist, artist). Her success is all about this kind of skill set going over the limitations set by narrow thinking, stereotypes, & racism; she has displayed that there is more to it than her individual progress. All of this clarifies a humbling trait within Jeanne’s educated Eye & photographic works. Yet, the quality of unselfishness in her contributions to photography is the true interior that teaches us through her educated Eye.

Miss Bertha, silver gelatin print, ©Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe

To view more of her Jeanne’s photography, purchase her books, postcards & receive updates on her future photography exhibitions, please visit her official website site at:

*Shaun La is a writer & photographer who is working on his book, The Perpetual View Called Photography: Essays. His work can viewed on his official website at: