Portraits of Her People

Historian, photographer and Macarthur "genius," Deborah Willis documents the black experience

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She is right. The exhibition and its 348-page catalog have a lot of pictures that stay with me. "Reflections in Black" travels to Albany, New York, in January, and will tour the country for the next two years. The photographs span from slavery to the civil rights era to the present day. The early images depict a world that I knew little of, for it was largely invisible to white America: daguerreotypes of black men and women, some of them in their coffins; wedding portraits by James VanDerZee, now famous; a typewriting club; a string band with zither and banjo; a Tuskegee commencement; distinguished black leaders like Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. DuBois.

Moving into the 1960s, we see the marches, the rallies, the dramatic high points of the civil rights movement, and candid shots of Malcolm X (one with Muhammad Ali), H. Rap Brown, James Baldwin, the great saxophonist John Coltrane and a striking portrait of a white-robed Muslim woman in Brooklyn.

Many pictures are not about politics or art. They are simply a record of black life through the years. Roland Charles provides a charming photograph of a woman having her hair done, taken in a mirror. The woman is ducking away in shy laughter as the beautician looks on amused. Or Sholumbo Playing Cards with his Grandpa, in which a small boy and an old man engage in a serious contest on a makeshift table.

A world is captured here, and as Willis says, with black-and-white you have to go in and become part of it.

Don't ask me to pick a favorite picture (as I asked Willis to), but as I turn the page I see a candid shot called Speedo and Smiley in Harlem, 1969, by Joe Harris. The two men are meeting on an empty sidewalk among some cookie-cutter apartment buildings. The urban neighborhood is stark, almost grim, but the friends are laughing as they shake hands, glad to see each other, and you have to smile, too, for the sheer joy in their faces.

By Michael Kernan


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