Double Exposures: Photographic Iterations of Reality

Photography has exerted a double influence on the history of African-American art and representation. In the tradition of the New Deal's Federal Arts Project, artists often use the camera to recreate and publicize the harsh realities of African-American life. The works of Robert Pass and Keith Medley in this gallery employ this journalistic realism.

However, reaction against such representations also powered African-American photography into new directions. New Deal photography often seemed to romanticize the stereotype of African-American poverty. This preoccupation with dark realism failed to recognize the full range of the African-American experience, prompting many African-American photographers to embrace the task of representing the African-American middle-class, and African-American leaders, as their duty.

Indeed, photography was a means through which middle-class African-Americans could assert their economic freedom. As photographer Harold Baquet recounts in his interview with Charles Rowell, displaying a professionally commissioned photographic portrait on the mantel was a proud declaration of status as a "person of means." James Van Der Zee, whose Depression-era Lady at the Piano appears in this gallery, was one of the most influential photographers who turned his camera towards affluent African-Americans, and who chose stylization over documentary realism, as early as the '20s and '30s.

In contemporary African-American photography, the dichotomy of stylization and realism manifests itself through the classic question of whether African-American art should always deal explicitly with race. The photographs of Norman Baylor, as well as Paulette Johnson's Vol. 2, No. 3 cover, favor heightened stylization over explicit examinations of race. Simultaneously, while the photographs of Roy Lewis, John Small, and Larry Anderson address issues of race, they meld stylization with the journalistic gaze. That current photographers can thus mix the two strains of African-American photography dating back to the New Deal represents a success, on the part of photographers, to rework the romanticized image of African-American in poverty. The emphasis is no longer on the African-American as helpless subject, but on African-American photographer as artful arranger and communicator.


Vol. 1, No. 1 (Dec., 1976)


Vol. 1, No. 2 (Feb., 1978)

Photo by Robert Pass


Vol. 2, No. 3 (Oct., 1979)

Photo by Paulette S. Johnson


Vol. 5, Numbers 1-2 (Feb. - May, 1982)

The Weight, by Roy Lewis,
Martin Luther King Day, 1981.
From photo-essay: "The Weight on an African Man, Sometimes Called Afro-American, Black, Negro, Colored, etc.," 1982


Vol. 5, Number 3 (Oct., 1982)

Photo by Paulette S. Johnson


Vol. 6, No. 1 (Feb., 1983)

Photo by Norman Baylor


Vol. 7, No. 1 (Winter, 1984)

Photo by Keith Medley


Vol. 7, No. 3 (Autumn, 1984)

Photograph by Norman Baylor


Vol. 9, No. 1 (Winter, 1986)

Lady at the Piano
James Van Der Zee


Vol. 9, No. 2 (Spring, 1986)

John Small, 1983


Vol. 9, No. 4 (Autumn, 1986)

Photo by Norman W. Baylor


Vol. 10, No. 3 (Summer, 1987)

Photo by Larry Anderson

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