To some, Kwame Brathwaite was the “Keeper of the Images,” capturing black creativity and expression in its purest and most candid of forms. Between the late 1950s and the late 1970s, the Brooklyn native made his career documenting the burgeoning black art and political movements in New York — most notably, the “Black is Beautiful” movement that encouraged black people to accept and celebrate their natural features.
Brathwaite’s photographs of black women in particular — often sporting natural hairstyles and wearing Afrocentric fashions — challenged the era’s monolithic white beauty standards and were an alternative to the depictions of beauty idealized in films and magazines, and on television.
The Aperture Foundation and Los Angeles’ Skirball Cultural Center are celebrating Brathwaite’s legacy with “Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite,” a show of more than 40 of his most memorable photographs.
“When you see these models (in his photos) who range in skin tone but are mostly in the medium to deeper brow ranges of skin color, and they have short, natural hair, they are transgressing to major beauty norms of the day: the desire for long hair and the desire for straight hair,” Tanisha C. Ford, a cultural critic and co-author of the book accompanying the exhibition, said in a phone interview.
“You have women who are bold enough to cut off their processed hair and wear their hair short, not only as a mode of convenience but to do so and say, ‘This is beautiful. This is stylish. This is fashion forward.’ It not only changed the dynamics around beauty and appearance and aesthetics in black communities. It was a way to come up in a beauty system that privileged European notions of beauty.”
Brathwaite was born to Barbadian immigrant parents in 1938. He was working as a teenaged jazz club promoter in the Bronx when he first became interested in photography, after watching one of his friends shoot show-goers in the dimly lit space.
When he received a camera of his own as a graduation gift, he immediately immersed himself in the craft, studying books on photography and using his earnings from the club to upgrade his equipment. Soon after, he began documenting the youth and music scenes across the Bronx and Harlem.