10 Essential African-American Photographers

Thomas Allen Harris’ documentary Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People will be playing at New York’s Film Forum through September 9. “The film is a cornucopia of Americana that reveals deeply disturbing truths about the history of race relations while expressing joyous, life-affirming sentiments about the ability of [African-American] artists and amateurs alike to assert their identity through the photographic lens,” Film Forum writes. “What the film strives to say is, when everything around me is telling me I am not worth anything, I can present myself and have a likeness of myself and my talents that shows I have values,” Harris told the New York Times. Inspired by the film’s New York City premiere, we’ve highlighted the works of ten essential African-American photographers who have documented the African-American experience in profound and inspiring ways.

James van der Zee

James van der Zee2


James Van Der Zee

Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee is celebrated for his pioneering, glamorous portraits of the emergent African-American middle-class during the ’20s and ’30s. He also captured the thriving celebrity, arts, and music culture of the time. Through the use of ghostly double exposures, the artist portrayed deceased family members or imaginary figures (suggesting the future children of a happily married couple, for example) in his photos. The influence of his unique retouching techniques and sensitive, poetic approach has been frequently understated.