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‘Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers’

Prentice “P.H.” Polk (1898 – 1984) portrait of Mildred Hanson Baker

It is unlikely that many people would be familiar with the name Jules Lion. A free man of color, Lion established the first daguerrean studio in New Orleans and, in doing so, became somewhat of a local celebrity. Alone, his accomplishments might have been of little interest. But the fact that he did this in the early spring of 1840, soon after the announcement of the daguerreotype process, is worthy of special attention. Moreover, there is evidence that Lion may have immigrated from France with knowledge of the process. For historian Deborah Willis, Lion’s achievements mark not only the beginning of photography in the U.S., but the pioneering involvement of blacks in the medium. As a result, Lion is included in the landmark exhibition, Reflections in Black: Smithsonian African American Photography.

The exhibition, the largest ever conceived to explore the breadth and history of black photography in the U.S., features more than 300 vintage, modern, and contemporary images by photographers of African descent, and was curated by Willis, formerly of the Smithsonian Institution Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture, and currently Professor of Photography and Imaging at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. A recent MacArthur Fellow and photographer, she is also the author of the exhibition companion book, Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present.

The groundbreaking survey, which has traveled throughout the U.S. since 2000, was on display at three Northern California museums: the African American Museum and Library at Oakland, the Oakland Museum of California, and the Mills College Art Museum. This unique collaboration afforded the only complete viewing of the exhibition in the West. The First 100 Years: 1842 – 1942, the exhibition’s first thematic section, chronicles the early development of African American photography. The second section, Art and Activism, focuses on the role of social meaning and commentary in photography, mirroring the rise of the civil rights movement. A History Deconstructed, the final section, explores the black photographers’ response to our society’s established definitions of race, class, and gender.

Throughout the exhibition, Willis eloquently presents a simple premise: that black photographers have played a significant role in influencing and defining black self-identity while, at the same time, playing an essential part in the history of the medium. Adopting the power of the new technology, blacks immediately began to use photography to counter negative images prevalent in the U.S., as well as to create a more affirming representation.

Read more: Charles Guice

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