black lives, white lens: the black photographer has always been disregarded by the new world

July 3, 2017

By Shaun La*, AFROPUNK Contributor

J.T. Zealy was the daguerreotypist behind these three daguerreotypes from the year, 1850. The daguerreotype camera unashamedly framed the faces, bodies & minds of three slaves from South Carolina. As they look into the lens, the momentous stare from each slave has a timeless, sad visual course that should convincingly remind our modern civilization of what these three Black slaves had to undergo. It is what generations of Black families had to go through: slavery was a callous price paid in order to be told that they were property used to build a so-called New World.

J.T. was employed to make these “Views” (what some people would call photographic visuals back in the 19th century) by an associate of Louis Agassiz, who happens to be the founder of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. Louis was born & raised in Switzerland, arriving to the U.S.A. in the 1840’s.

*Side note: Zoology is a branch of scientific study that deals with classifying & reviewing, analyzing, researching the behavior & life of animals.

The purposes of these Daguerreotypes were to scientifically (Louis was a scientist) show how the Races of people in this world were demographically separated in cultures, skin color, intelligence & respect. With separation comes an order of which Race was superior & which Races were inferior.

Of course, during the 1800’s, slave owners were putting their ears to the outcomes of Louis’ scientific studies, because they wanted an academic logic that supported their treatment of Black men, women & children who were inhumanely valued as property worthy of their ownership. Enslaving along with the cruelty that was practiced on Black slaves was adapted into a reasoning that reached the educated whites—whose thinking was a scholarly insight to intellectualize owning Blacks slaves in a so-called New World society that tended to look the other way, whenever slavery provided a wealthy economy.

If Louis Agassiz or Josiah C. Nott (a surgeon & physician who had a diluted conjecture on the white race being the superior race, a diluted sense completely biased with his polygenism studies, because he owned Black slaves) had grown into photographers, the weight of their ignorance would have tilted the imbalances in their already faux scale of measuring the races of humankind with a prejudice that would have been visually stereotypical & academically incorrect.

However, they both used the new medium, Photography, as a vehicle to bolster their scholarly opinions on how the white race was superior to the other Races. As abnormal as the judgements of the Black race may seem to a current world of thinkers—Louis & Josiah showed the 19th & 20th centuries, two educated minds in two different locations, which had an approved audience which consisted of future students, teachers & a slave owning society constructing a way to make sense out of inhumane slave labor, based on a different skin color.

Slavery in America built an economic prosperity from Blacks being kidnapped, abused, traded, packed & shipped from Africa to the Americas (the so-called New World) via Europeans with the wealth & power that allowed them to invest into the slave trade; meanwhile, Europe’s backing put forth consistent ambitions of conquering through battles, wars & with corrupted peace treaties, America from the natives who had their own cultures.

The white lens has always been a faculty for spreading a dominating control over seeing the power in how they can mend, rearrange, control the underlying visions of what they want to see. Look into the expeditions where settlers went out West in a newly unfolding United States back in the mid 1800’s. These early U.S. government funded expeditions enlarged the greedy ambitions of white America wanting to conquer the open frontier; furthermore, it was about feeding a mission with finding land (that was owned by the Native Americans) to run their rail-road out & into any land they wanted to be a part of the United States.

In 1853, Governor I.I. Stevens from the Washington Territory, hired the photographer J.M. Stanley. Not only would J.M. find a way to collect the trust of the Native Americans’ by photographing them: somehow, the entire expedition found a way into the Native Americans mindset, as can be comprehended through Governor I.I. Stevens own words from his travel log, dated the 4th of September, 1853:

“Mr. Stanley commenced taking daguerreotypes of the Indians with his apparatus. They are delighted and astonished to see their likeness produced by the direct action of the sun. They worship the sun, and they considered Mr. Stanley was inspired by their divinity, and he thus became in their eyes a great medicine man.”

Governor II Steven’s wrote this experience down for the 36th Congress, First Session, Executive Document Number, 56, 1860, pages 37 & 103.

Little did this particular tribe of Native Americans know that their land was being photographed for the purpose to be conquered. That Powerful Instrument, also known as The Camera:

Photography was fully successful in producing the latent image in the late 1820’s.
Nicéphore Niépce & Louis Daguerre (inventor of the Daguerrotype) was behind shaping up the future structure of what the camera could do & what photographic processes was required, in order to produce a Moment frozen by a wooden box with a lens.

What might have escaped outside of the thought of society at the time of Photography being invented, would be that such an instrument (the camera) being fully capable to photograph a visual reality—in this case, the wickedness of enslaving a Race because of their skin color.

Just as the scientists & politicians who ran with the guesswork that Blacks were better off as slaves & recorded their pride of being slave owners—to take a photograph of such a cruel way of living (for the Black slave) was a visual token for the slave owner. Their guesswork had zero common sense or foresight for the future by using photography as a way to calculate the past, its achievements & failures.

Slavery in America was a complete reality, centuries before Photography was able to pause the real visual horrors & situations that went through generations of Blacks being uprooted out of their native Africa & replanted in a New World. It was a New World that did not want anything to do with their intelligence, culture or dreams to become productive to a New World’s politics or society.

The Black slave was to be trained to do one thing: be a slave to a slave owner that they did not ask for. Mingle this acceptance from a New World society that enslaved Blacks in America. It became a conscious normality. Now, as we look back, we can see how the freedom to photograph such a brutal business was not perceived as being inhumane by a racist New World. Despite at the time, there were the public attitudes of (some) white & Black abolitionists, runaway slaves & small pockets of society who went against the normality in a New World society that congratulated the ownership of Black slaves. Society at that time had a criterion of humanity to look up to, even if the abolitionists & runaway slaves were the outcast.

At least 18 U.S. Presidents were slave owners or slave traders. The influence of a New World leader owning slaves can only grant an impression that would only influence the voters who elected them into office, to want to own slaves as well.

The photograph is unbiased. When history expands into a future, it has the influence to want to rewrite itself, in order to offer a logical reason: the photograph will eventually show the reality, even when the so-called logical reasons are truly alogical.

Not human enough to be considered a co-equal, but in a property sense, you can watch over master’s children: Black slaves, typically women, who had the responsibility to care for the children of their slave masters can be photogenic in the sense that the photograph had a sort of bragging power for the slave owner. Let us apply a psychological reading to these photographs of Black slaves who were the nannies, babysitters, maids & property of slave owners who were white. The mental breakdown of ordering your slave to hold your child in a photograph would meet no resistance from the Black slave. To look willing, neat, kind & passive would be the outcome of these slaves who had to do what they were told. These would be all of the signs that pointed to showing the symptoms of a well-behaved slave: as well as the first vibes that a slave owning family would look for in a slave who they trusted around their family.

I would not be taken aback, had the slave owners & their families relished in showing their friends, the photographs of the house slave, standing with or sitting down with the children of the family who owned them. It was a visual source of the family life that endorsed a photographic moment of success that came with breaking down the mind, body & emotions of a slave to do as the slave masters wanted them to do—even if this was about capturing a photograph for the mantelshelf in the sitting room of their master’s house.

Another psychological ingredient that I found inside of these photographs has to do with their connection to these children. The cycle of enslaving the slave’s family had to be another possibility. Did the house slaves children play with the family who owned them, children? If so, would these enslaved children become passive & were they going to be the next generation of house slaves for the family? Slave ownership had a generational investment profit to its rhetoric on why Blacks were better off as slaves & did not need to be free in the New World.

A Group of Slaves in Cumberland, Virginia. Library of Congress.

A Brutal Business Sense:

Blacks being controlled under slavery extended throughout the Americas. Initially, photography was a luxury afforded to those who could afford the physical photograph. Economically, the Black slave, freed slaves, as well as the offspring of enslaved parents, were at the lowest end of the pay-scale.

While Photography was a fantastic invention for the 19th century, it was not going to be the instrument that would be the visual torch that wields together, the reestablishment of the Black race, recovering from being freed slaves. Racism still existed before, during & after the Reconstruction Period in the 19th century.

This B&W photograph shows 5 generations of slaves on the Smith’s plantation, in Beaufort, South Carolina. Stored at the Library of Congress.

Not just in the United States was the Black Slave, mistreated, photographically: Cuban photographer, Joaquín Blez had great success during the early part of the 20th century. He became the official presidential photographer for Mario García Menocal & for the political circle of Cuba during this time. After he opened up his studio in Calle Neptuno, Havana, his portrait prices were set high enough to keep the poor & Afro-Cubans away from hiring his photographic services. This would be very significant, because Cuba was the first Latin American country to have a photographic studio & the second in the world to have one, after the United States of America.

Such a photographic practice straddles the common practice of eliminating the poor, Black men, women or children in any part of the so-called New World from being able to see themselves visually. As with any business or economic system, a void will always be met with an arrangement of someone trying to supply a service that has a demand behind it.

Black communities did find a way to thrive in segregation, while having their portraits, family, friends & lifestyle photographed. Some Black photographers were self-taught. Others found a way to be an apprentice while learning the skill of photography under a white photographer.

Thomas Askew was a Black photographer whose professional work from the 19th & 20th centuries were professional & catered to his own Black community. When W.E.B. DuBois, Thomas Calloway & Daniel A.P. Murray built an exhibition, (The Exhibition of American Negroes) out of courage & pride, with the astute motivation to show Blacks in America, photographed as dignified business owners, educators, & military servicemen: some of Thomas Askew’s photography was a part of their exhibition.

It was an enlightening approach from Black men, wanting to show France & Europe that Blacks were not the stereotypical photographs or illustrations that visually created the Black race as some uncivilized, circus act who needed white American or European discipline in order to co-exist in the so-called New World.

*To read more about The Exhibition of American Negroes, please feel free to read my essay for AfroPunk here.*

Hamilton Sutton Smith was another photographer whose portrait photography was from a professional approach. J.P. Ball was a Black photographer who had his technical roots enriched from the Daguerreotype process. The lens of J.P. had the prestigious honor of photographing Henry H. Garnet & one of the most photographed men of the 19th century, Frederick Douglass.

A Photograph from the lens of Thomas Askew. This photograph would be of Summit Avenue Ensemble. Stored at the Library of Congress.

Black women photographers during the late 19th century & the early part of the 20th century found their Eye to show that a woman could be a professional photographer. Ethel Worthington, Vera Jackson, Louise Jefferson, Winifred Hall Allen, Michelle Agins, Elnora W. Frazier, Elizabeth Tex & Madame E. Toussaint (who was the older sister of the photographer James Van Der Zee) are some of the Black women photographers who went through overt racism, sexism, but with fortitude, found the strengths to keep perfecting their Eye.

A lot of women photographers were co-photographers with their husbands at their photographic studios. However, due to the gender biased justification from white men running the Photography World, women (Black & white
women) were often left without being credited for their photography.

The possibility of some Black women photographers not receiving proper credit for their photographic works in the 19th & 20th centuries is very plausible. For a Black man who was a photographer, to be able to run a successful photographic studio was not an easy task, due to racism not always expecting the Black man to have an Eye: for a Black woman photographer, she figure out a way to overcome racism & sexism trying to discourage her lens.

Eslanda Goode Robeson (wife of the acclaimed Black actor, Paul Robeson) gravitated into photography with a keen interest in the photographic moment. She accepted Photography as a candid visual outlet during her travels with her famous husband; also, she recognized the advantages that the camera could lend to her anthropology studies.

A photograph from the lens of Vera Jackson. Harold Nicholas & Dorothy Dandridge are in this frame, happy & on horseback.

Vibes: The central vibe in America possesses a traditional method of ignorance that excludes Blacks from Photography. Now, the central vibe will reinvent itself, when it is about whites photographing Blacks as a resource for white America or a European interest being fulfilled. This reinvention accelerates theories, research, or a savoir’s complex formulating into a condescending act of being the white lens who rescued the Black plights through a camera, pen, paintbrush or book.

This central vibe in America does not mean that Blacks were incapable of being professional or artistic with the camera. Nor does it mean that Black communities, which nurtured schools, colleges, hospitals, banks, ownership of homes, property, & businesses were unreal. In fact, Blacks had many hardships, however, they found a way to culturally flourish in their own communities throughout a segregated, racist New World. The racial discrimination from a Photography World that wanted to fiercely defend the white Eye, lens & communities that catered to commercialism & artistic standards has always been about maintaining its subzero temperatures. When past (19th & 20th centuries) photographs from Black photographers throughout this so-called New World in the Western Hemisphere are examined retrospectively, the discrimination that they faced will show an overt, prideful racism that they had to experience—this continues as we live in this 21st century that undertakes a passive aggressive popular culture understanding about racism.

Could it be that racism has went into a covert place?

In the 20th century, Harpers Bazaar’s well-known art-director, Alexey Brodovitch complimented Gordon Parks on his photographic portfolio during a meeting at his office; however, Alexey’s verbal rejection to Gordon was rested on a cold reality. He allowed Gordon to know that the Hearst Corporation does not hire Negros, not even to sweep or mop the floors of their offices. Therefore hiring a Black photographer to photograph white models & fashion designs from white clothing designers were politically incorrect.

The 20th century was not that long ago.

It would not be a mishap when we hear, “The 1st Black photographer” to work for this or that major magazine during our 21st century. For example, when you tighten up the screw of a realization, accepting that Vogue has had very few Black photographers work for their magazine in their 120 years of being a powerful fashion publication—the tightness can seem like a traditional security. Gordon Parks was the first Black photographer for Vogue. Errol Sawyer could have been the second or third & Koto Bolofo rounding out the third or possibly fourth Black photographer to work there. (Please forgive me if I left out any other Black photographers who were under contract with any of the Vogue magazines.) This mainstream appeal of Vogue has fragments within its power. Vogue has magazines that are dedicated to certain countries. As in British Vogue, Vogue Paris, Vogue Italia, e.t.c. Where is a Vogue for any given African nation? The United States has its racist past, but how does this impact Vogue Paris not having 5 Black photographers on their staff? France would be in Europe, it was the national location where “The Exhibition of the American Negroes” were held in the year, 1900.

Racism has always been a universal weapon. Enslaving Blacks in the Americas was just a systematic revolving cycle in racism growing as a way of thinking, & behaving to owning Blacks who were taken out of their original culture & land. Just as publications are universal, the tradition in what is perceived as having an Eye or any other talent will meet a universal approval or rejection that does not want the Black creative’s input—at least, not in the sense where a boardroom of Blacks are running a white publication.

Sort of an Answer, well, not really:

In 2008, Vogue Italia made an uncommon move in the mainstream fashion world by dedicating an entire issue to Black models & topics regarding Blacks in the fashion industry. Steven Meisel, a white American, well-respected fashion photographer was the overlord of the lens, as he was commissioned to photograph an issue of visuals celebrating the Black race as a fashionable, unique multitude of cultures.

What about Koto Bolofo?

Koto is a Black photographer from South Africa, who has a history of working for Vogue. Richard Avedon helped him out during the early part of his career. Just as Edward Steichen helped Gordon Parks by lining up a meeting for Gordon to meet Vogue’s editor, Alexander Liberman. Even the white photographers such as Edward & Richard, who had a lot of connections & knew that some kind of racism prevented creative non-whites from being a part of such a mainstream creative environment, could only help put a tiny crack in the mainstream, commercial wall of racism.

I highly doubt that it had anything to do with Koto’s professional Eye. However, let us say that Koto’s Eye was an issue—perhaps, it did not measure up to Vogue Italia’s monthly, creative message. What about Dallas Logan, Keith Major, Marc Baptiste? As the term fashion photographer has adapted into a professional title, the outflow of so many photographers wanting to make it as a professional in the genre of fashion photography are massive! This outflow in the fashion industry has produced many good & great Black professional fashion photographers who are often ignored, overlooked, undervalued, to settle at the ceiling where the Black photographer’s Eye does not seem commercial enough to be approved as a crossover success.

It is either this outcome or the quota for Black photographers working at mainstream, white publications have been met: it is a silence that speaks with the tone of, Black photographers, retry with making a hole in our mainstream ceiling, 5 to 10 years from now. Be sure to wash your Eyes in the meantime.

When Gordon Parks wanted to participate in the publishing business with displaying the Black lifestyle: he found a home in a glossy magazine, cleverly named Essence: it was about creating more opportunities for Black photographers & staff writers in the 1970’s; furthermore, his involvement as an editorial director with Essence magazine gave a momentum to the possibility of Black stories as well as fashion & photography physically meeting the eyes of the Black communities. However, in 1971, Diane Arbus (a white photographer whose work was daring at the time) was hired by
Essence magazine to photograph the Minster Albert Cleage.

Even when Black professionals start up their own business, such as a magazine, the reliance on the white lens is still validated by the hiring of white photographers for Black publications.

Equal Opportunity of the Lens?

It would not be outrageous to admit that Blacks owned publications have taken the high road when it came down to permitting the white photographer to have a chance to show their talents in writing or Photography through Black owned publications.

Whereas, Black photographers have had to deal with one or two Black photographers climbing over the massive wall of white, commercial publications, accepting their work every, 5, 10 or 15 years. In the meantime, the 20th century would be the first full 100 years for Photography. A lot of professional Black photographers with a professionally, unique Eye did not make it across that mainstream wall (in a crossover sense). It was not because of their skill-set: it was because of the premise that Black photographers were not suppose to know Photography better than a white man or woman. This same premise goes on in every creative, academic & leadership field that unrolls into a civilization within America.

A Standing Ovation by their own design:

A societal pat on the back would meet these white, commercial publications as if they are offering themselves an award by smiling at the commercial world, while saying, “this is the first Black photographer” that will be working on our staff.