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Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present by Author Deborah Willis

 Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present by Deborah Willis [W.W. Norton; October 2009; $49.95 cloth] is the first photographic history of black beauty. It tells a story overlooked by most of America, and promises to transform the way we think about the history of African American visual culture. Deborah Willis, whose much-celebrated Reflections in Black provided the first definitive history of black photographers, has now collected over two hundred photographs in duotone and full color that provide a lasting statement on beauty in the African American community. From posed studio portraits to dandies on parade to elegant debutantes, Willis has constructed a bold narrative of the ever-changing idea of beauty, both female and male, and shows how history books, newspapers, and mainstream magazines deliberately excluded black models until the late 1960s and early 1970s.

 

Each photograph opens a window into an entire world of African American life. Edward Curtis and Thomas Askew capture African American society women at the turn of the century, while Russell Lee’s photographs of the early 1940s show a prosperous Chicagoan in his smoking jacket and a crowd of young boys on Easter. Willis has also discovered other images, some of them taken by lesser known but equally gifted photographers, which document the world of the barbershop, the beauty salon, and the beauty pageant.  More recently, there are Anthony Barboza’s series of photos from the streets of Harlem in the early 1970s and Carl De Keyzer’s images of natty preachers and families in their Sunday best, which echo Henri Cartier-Bresson’s earlier photos of Harlem residents dressed for Easter Sunday parades.

 

While celebrating ordinary people, Posing Beauty is also filled with photographs of the famous, from Josephine Baker to Lil’ Kim. Classic photos of Muhammad Ali, James Brown, and Ray Charles, among others, bear witness to the rise of African American celebrities in the 1960s, while images of Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks show just how politically powerful beauty can be. More contemporary photos of Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Denzel Washington, and the Obamas demonstrate how African American beauty has actually often come to dominate popular American culture.Posing Beauty’s democratic vision, one that incorporates the dapper man on the street with the pop star of the movie screen, opens up a new vista for understanding what exactly beauty meant for people in the past and what it means for all of us today.

 

Deborah Willis is the author of the best-selling Obama: The Historic Campaign in Photographs and the award-winning Reflections in Black. She is the recipient of MacArthur, Guggenheim, and Fletcher Fellowships, and has curated numerous exhibitions. She is the chair of the Photography and Imaging Department at the Tisch School of the Arts and a University Professor at New York University.

 



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