7 Women Photographers Celebrating Black Beauty
When Arielle Bobb-Willis first began making photographs, she was disheartened by how few black women photographers appeared in Google’s search engine. Though Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems had earned international renown, they were few and far between. Nearly a decade later, black image-makers have elevated each other’s voices through public databases, gallery shows, and collectives. Yet institutions and publishers must do their part, too, to ensure that the strides towards inclusivity are systemic and long-lasting.
Bobb-Willis, along with Nadine Ijewere, Namsa Leuba, Renell Medrano, Ruth Ossai, Adrienne Raquel, and Dana Scruggs, are seven women who have emerged onto the fashion and art scene within the past decade. Last month, critic and curator Antwaun Sargent included them in his book The New Black Vanguard (2019) with Aperture Foundation. The survey includes 15 portfolios of work from women and men; it serves as a resource for editors and curators, a snapshot of the changing fashion and fine-art landscapes, and a celebration of black beauty in all of its guises.
In his opening essay, Sargent quoted model Barbara Summers on the lack of varied representation of black beauty in pop culture: “Beauty is a power. And the struggle to have the entire range of black beauty recognized and respected is a serious one.” Though photographers championed black beauty in the 1970s “Black is Beautiful” movement in the U.S. and U.K., and throughout West Africa in portrait studios during the second half of the 20th century, the gaze behind the lens was largely male. Moreover, white photographers are still regularly applauded for their takes on contemporary black life, while black photographers receive less recognition.
Lesley A. Martin, publisher at Aperture Foundation, stressed how important it is to reassess “who gets to narrate and shape our collective ideas of beauty and value.” Fashion images shift the tides of beauty standards, but as Sargent writes, they do so much more: “Viewed critically, they offer a means of cultural reflection, tracking changes in societal attitudes, politics, sexuality, social and economic structures, and the value that we ascribe to expressions of individuality.”
Together, the portfolios show a blurring of lines between images that appear in print or hang on a gallery wall. “One of our goals was to show work that made clear how elastic the boundaries between ‘commercial image’ and ‘artwork’ have become,” Martin said. Scruggs, who often shoots emotive portraits of black masculinity, is the first black female photographer to shoot for ESPN The Magazine’s “Body” issue and a cover for Rolling Stone. Ijewere, too, has paved the way in editorial photography, with her gestural fashion images earning her a historic British Vogue cover. Ossai’s vivid studio portraits that relish in camp are rooted in her Nigerian heritage. Leuba makes the rounds in the art fair and museum circuit with heroic portraits that subvert the Western gaze of African identity. Raquel’s gauzy world of pink and red luxury still lifes have been featured in campaigns for NARS and Refinery29.
The book also connects the dots across visual exchanges happening between black creators and movements all over the world, in Africa, Europe, and America. Though themes and motifs often intersect, there is also a boundless nature to the perspectives introduced in the book. “Black expression should never be limiting and I hope the book will bring notice to the fact that there is more than one black narrative,” Bobb-Willis said.
Scruggs has witnessed changes in the editorial world since her barrier-breaking—and long overdue—shoots for two major publications. “For me, the biggest success to come out of both of those moments is the fact that many photo editors and creative directors are now seeking talent outside of their bubbles, which is hopefully giving Black photographers more tangible opportunities in the industry,” she wrote via email.
With more black photographers creating highly visible images—as well as commissioning them—black perspectives in the fashion and art worlds will no longer be a rarity or a series of firsts. Sargent writes of his vanguard: “[They] are making fashion images that establish the significance of the black figure—and even more radically, the black creator—as a new ideal in contemporary culture.”