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Proofs Positive 

Wednesday, Aug 20 2003
Images of African-American celebrities grace the pages of sports, fashion, and entertainment magazines on newsstands across the country. But long before Denzel, Halle, or Beyoncé, the only portraits featuring blacks as subjects were those taken by a scant handful of largely unknown black lensmen. Now an exhibit in Oakland allows history-minded shutterbugs and American-culture devotees to view these rarely seen images, many of which helped change both the status of blacks and the medium of photography in America forever.

"Reflections in Black: Smithsonian African-American Photography" is a sprawling, ambitious exhibition of works shot by black photographers in the United States beginning in 1840. Curated by Deborah Willis, one of the foremost African-American photographers in the country, the display features more than 300 remarkable and often moving pictures by 120 artists. The Smithsonian's collection is so extensive that curators had to spread the show out through two different Oakland museums, with a third outlet, the Mills College Art Museum, having exhibited some of the images earlier this summer.

The African American Museum and Library at Oakland hosts Part 1 of the show, "The First 100 Years: 1842-1942." With shots ranging from portraitist Jules Lion's daguerreotypes of New Orleans residents to the work of abolitionist photographers like James Presley Ball, who used his images as visual indictments of slavery, this segment spotlights black photographers as they experimented with the newly invented medium to create a pictorial history of the diversity of early African-American life.

The Oakland Museum of California is the home of Part 2, "Art and Activism." These selections feature the work of photojournalists like Jonathan Eubanks, Chandra McCormick, and Chester Higgins Jr., who photographed the protests, meetings, rallies, and violence of the civil rights, pro-African culture, and labor movements from the '50s until current times. They wanted not only to record events, but also to help motivate cultural and political change during one of the most turbulent eras in our history.

Seen in their entirety, the show's images offer more than just a record of African-Americans' struggle as they sought to transcend the legacy of slavery and become active participants in modern, multicultural America. The photos are also a celebration of dignity, pride, and success, as well as a salute to the cultural contributions of African-Americans in music, literature, and politics. The black photographers working during the 140 years the exhibit covers easily could have chosen merely to detail the misery, poverty, and anguish they saw around them; they chose instead to document the humanity of their people. "There are things nobody would see if [photographers] didn't photograph them," Diane Arbus once said. These are pictures that should be seen.

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Jack Karp


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