Famous black photographers include Jules Lion (1810-1866) who is thought to be the first African-American photographer and who ran a daguerrotype studio in New Orleans in 1840.
James Presley Ball (1825-1905) was also a Daguerrean and studio photographer and worked with his brother Thomas in Cincinnati in 1845. Ball learned his trade from another black photographer, John B Bailey.
A list of the names of all famous photographers should surely include the Goodridge brothers who were early pioneers in the history of photography. However, famous photographers work often fails to make it into the major history books which generally focussed on white (male) photographers.
One exception was the talented amateur Hamilton Sutton Smith (1857-1924). At this time, there were also black women photographers who mostly assisted their husbands and whose contributions were not acknowledged.
Above: Portrait of James Presley Ball
In the 20th century, Addison Scurlock (1916-64) became well known for his photographic work but also trained many young black photographers. Other famous black photographers of that time were Arthur P. Bedou (1886-1966), Cornelius Marion Battey (1873-?), and Prentice Herman Polk (1898-?) whose photographs include the rural population in their locale.
But perhaps the most famous black photographer was James Vanderzee (1886-1983) who lived in Harlem in New York and ran a photographic studio there from 1916 to 1968 (see image right). He also worked as a photo-journalist and as a portrait and society photographer.
His photographs of Harlem show it, not as a ghetto, but as a part of the city of New York, with its own unique character which has been said to be romanticized but in spite of that forms an important historical record which is now kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The portraits he took from 1918 to 1945 formed part of the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art Harlem on my Mind in 1969. Other important photographs include images of social institutions such as Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association.
Another very famous black photographer was Gordon Parks who was hired as a freelance fashion photographer by Vogue to photograph a collection of evening gowns. He was also employed as a photographer and writer for Life magazine as a result of his photo essay in 1948 on a young Harlem gang leader. He worked for Life for 20 years, and produced photos on a huge variety of topics plus portraits of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Barbara Streisand amongst others.
Parks also worked for the Farm Security Administration but his most famous photograph was made in 1942, entitled American Gothic (left) and shows the cleaner Mrs Ella Watson standing with two mops in front of the American flag.
Parks was married and divorced three times and was also romantically involved with the railroad heiress and designer Gloria Vanderbilt. He had four children and two grandsons and lived in a fashionable part of New York until his death from cancer at the age of 93.
There are so many other famous black photographers such as Roy DeCarava, Richard Clive Saunders (1922-1987), and Moneta Sleet (1926-96) who have played an important role in the evolution of documentary photography in the second half of the 20th century and I hope this short article has given you a jumping off point for further explorations into African-American photographers and their work.
Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present is a history of black photographers from 1840 to the present. It is the first comprehensive history of black photographers, a groundbreaking pictorial collection of African-American life. It covers more than a century of photographic endeavour by black photographers right up to the 1990s.
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