Celebrating Resistance

The curator of a portrait exhibition discusses how African Americans used photography to resist stereotypes

(Noelle Theard)

(Continued from page 1)

If the idea of resistance is the main theme of the show, are there other subthemes?
Resistance and beauty are essential to it. There is the photograph of Jack Johnson. He understands power; this is a black man at the turn of the century with his shirt off. [We see] the body, the gesture of power that he makes with his fist. So subthemes within there are power and beauty.

Did you look for any particular criteria as you decided which photographs to include?
No, I didn't have any. There were just experiences I had as I looked at the images. I didn't have any critical way of looking. There was a story that I wanted to tell that just spoke to me quietly. There are those curatorial moments when you know something links as an idea, as you see the images, the idea becomes tangible.

Can you name your favorite photographer or the image that resonated most for you?
There is a photograph of Jackie Robinson where he's seated in his study, and he's balancing a ball, he's throwing a ball up. That photograph says so much as a metaphor about his life—that he's well balanced. The photograph shows books over his head. The stereotype of an athlete is not as an academic or someone well read but he balances all that the way Garry Winogrand made that photograph.

I've read that a lot of the subjects weren't famous when their photographs were taken.
Rosa Parks was at the Highlander Folk School learning how to become an activist. The Supremes were about to start off at that time, and photographer Bruce Davidson was in the dressing room of the Apollo Theater. You see three women who were about to begin their dream of singing at the Apollo Theater.

When you consider the century and a half of photography displayed in the exhibition, what do you believe are the most important ways in which the role of photography has changed?
I think it's more popular; photography is an affirmation more and more. I don't think that the role of photography has changed but that people are affirming themselves, their presence in society. Portraits are made with hand held cameras, as well as with the phone. Everyone's taking portraits now, so it's a sense of affirmation.

After you made your selections and walked through the exhibit, what did you feel?
That the link worked. Sometimes you work in a vacuum and you're not talking to anyone and sometimes you wonder if it's real. So, the whole experience of subliminal messages is why I wanted to have the notion of the sublime in the photographic portraits. I see that it's a way of telling that story, that it reinforced what I'd been thinking and had not been able to visualize in a collective.

What does it say about America to you?
I see it as not just about America but about life, the whole range of experiences, all of the subjects have effected an international audience, as well as a local communities, as well as a national audience, so they're all linked. But there is a powerful voice for each person that follows us throughout. The world has been affected by a minimum of 5 to 10 people through sports, music, writing, art, etc., so there is an international experience with all.

And what are you tackling next, Deborah?
I'm working on a book called Posing Beauty. I'm still trying to get my beauty out there. So I'm looking at how, in using photography within the black communities, people have posed beauty from 1895 to the present. 1895 is a moment from the New Negro Period right after slavery and [I examine] this new experience of how blacks perceived themselves and how beauty contests became important during that time. I'm finding images of beauty through a range of experiences from the photographer's point of view, from the way people dressed going to the studio to how beauty is coordinated as a political stance, as well as an aesthetic. Norton is publishing it.

The portraits from the exhibition, "Let Your Motto Be Resistance," as well as a number of essays by Willis and other scholars, are contained in a catalog by the same title, published by Smithsonian Books and distributed by HarperCollins. A scaled-down version of the exhibition will begin touring select cities around the country in June.


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