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"Reflections in Black: Smithsonian African American Photography"
2002-10-05 until 2002-12-01
Atlanta History Center
Atlanta, GA, USA United States of America

Originated by the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution, the exhibition features a first-of-its-kind assemblage of work by 120 photographers presented in more than 300 images of remarkable expressive power. Images of family events, human-rights activities and the cultural vitality of the Harlem Renaissance are among the featured works. While serving as a chronology of the African American experience through the years, the exhibition also explores how photography was used as a means of creating and communicating personal and social identity.

Divided into three sections - The First 100 Years: 18421942, Art and Activism, and A History Deconstructed - the exhibition documents the black experience from slavery through the Civil Rights Era to the present day. The First 100 Years: 18421942 In the early 19th and 20th centuries, African Americans were, in fact, pioneers in the medium. Jules Lion (18101866) began producing daguerreotypes in New Orleans in 1840, just one year after the invention of the process. Using Lion's work as a starting point, this exhibition follows the development of African American photography through its first 100 years. The artists in this exhibition immediately understood the new medium's power to create a comprehensive visual legacy and provide support for enlightened social philosophies.

Created by various forms of photographic technique as they were invented, including daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, stereographs, composite printing, and flash photography, the images in this exhibition form a technical history of the medium as well as a pictorial history of African American life.

Some of the photographers included in this section are Augustus Washington, James Presley Ball, Daniel Freeman, Arthur P. Bedou and Florestine Perrault Collins. Art and Activism African American photographers were instrumental in motivating cultural change and defining the significance of the beginnings of the civil rights and black power movements in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In this section of the exhibition, marches, meetings, rallies, and leading figures such as Malcolm X and Thurgood Marshall are seen through the eyes of leading photojournalists of the day.

These decades also marked a time of new artistic approaches in photography. Some photographers moved beyond the traditional goal of objective reporting, using the power of narrative and metaphor to expand the awareness of the public, combating the negative stereotyping found in mainstream media culture. Photographers sought to be "graphic historians," creating a collective biography of African American people that would empower them in their struggle for civil rights, while at the same time providing evidence of the diversity of their individual histories, values and goals.

Included in this section of the exhibition are works by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Jonathan Eubanks, Jack T. Franklin, Robert Haggins, Milton J. Hinton, Fern Logan, Moneta Sleet, Jr., Chuck Stewart, Chester Higgins, Jr., Ernest Withers, and many others. A History Deconstructed During the past two decades African American artists have used their work to help tear down and redefine rigid concepts of race and gender. These artists redefine the photographic image by looking at it as a document and metaphor, often deconstructing and reconstructing their personal histories and public personas. The symbolic and expressive imagery of the works produced during this time offer a different visual paradigm.

Just as hybridized forms of modern mass communication compete to define American society, these artists use strategies such as juxtaposing text with image and mixing fact with fantasy to challenge the viewer's assumptions about artistic authority and authenticity. By questioning received wisdom and commonly held beliefs about representation in general, they initiate reconsideration, allowing new questions to be asked and new values to be formed.

Among the featured artists in this section are Albert Chong, Lynn Marshall Linnemeir, Stephen Marc, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems and Cynthia Wiggins.

Reflections in Black: Smithsonian African American Photography is curated by Deborah Willis, former curator of exhibitions at the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution. Willis is also a photographer, historian and the author of the book Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present (Norton, 2000). The exhibition tour is organized by Curatorial Assistance Traveling Exhibitions (CATE), Los Angeles, California.

Adrienne A. Odom,
Dunbar Apartments,
Harlem, 1998

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