The subjects of the 90 photographs that make up the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' major summer exhibition, "Posing Beauty in African American Culture," are as varied as the black photographers who captured the images during the past century.
There's a nearly bare-breasted desert queen from 1898. A crowd of fashionably dressed churchgoers on Easter Sunday from 1941. A couple dancing in a Chicago blues bar from 1962. Two Harlem couples in full disco regalia from the 1970s. A nattily attired rude boy from 1980. A woman with an Afro made of picks from 2007.
Curator and photographic historian Deborah Willis has drawn from public and private collections, assembling works from some of the premiere photographers of the last hundred years, black or white. Familiar musical faces abound — John Lee Hooker, Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Otis Redding, even a pre-plastic surgery Michael Jackson — along with everyday people.
But were they posed or were they posing?
At the turn of the 20th century, Thomas Askew chose to battle stereotypes by photographing blacks for W.E.B. Du Bois' "The Exhibit of American Negroes" at the 1900 Paris Exposition with images such as "African American Man Giving Piano Lessons to Young African American Woman." These were genteel scenes with an agenda — look, we aren't savages.
While Askew shaped his images to suit his purpose, sometimes it's the subject who determines the story being told.
Stephen Shames' 1970 photograph, "At Home, Huey Newton," shows the Black Panther co-founder and activist after he was released from jail, shirtless and in white jeans, standing in front of a coffee table laden with books and holding a copy of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited." The image he chose to present was far less threatening than how the press portrayed him.
Considering that the exhibit originally showed at the Tisch School of the Arts of New York University, visitors may be surprised to find several Richmond connections.
Works Progress Administration photographer Robert McNeill's "New Car, South Richmond" (1938) shows men gathered around a car in front of a house in South Side, which just as easily could have been in Church Hill or the North Side, a classic wooden house we've all seen. Tennis great Arthur Ashe's wife, photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, is represented with "Nude Self Portrait," a delicately striking work.
Photographer LeRoy Henderson grew up in North Side's Washington Park, just north of Barton Heights, and attended Maggie Walker High School. He's represented by his photograph, "Stokely Carmichael, Activist," from 1968.
Walking through the exhibit, Henderson gestures at his work. "I gave Stokely a copy of that," he says, pointing out the works of photographers who are old friends. He also has a photograph in the exhibit "Signs of Protest: Photographs from the Civil Rights Era," upstairs in the museum's photography gallery, along with Gordon Parks, a seminal photographer who Henderson knew.
"Growing up in Richmond, I could never have imagined my work being in the Virginia Museum," he says. "And then to be in two shows at once makes me feel blessed. My talent is a gift and I have to respect that gift."
Henderson found his calling young, when he learned about a kid who was taking art classes. "That night, I looked up the art teacher's phone number and called her at home to ask if I could take her class," he says, chuckling. "I got into Mrs. Gray's art class."
Fine art quickly gave way to photography. Citing old "Life" magazines and his grandmother's stereophonic viewer as his inspiration, he was smitten with the ability to view things he missed through the magic of photography. "I became more and more absorbed, thinking I had to catch what was happening," he says of his quest to be in the thick of things documenting the changes of '60s.
Henderson photographed speeches by Martin Luther King, Resurrection City's lean-tos and student protests at New York University and City College of New York. "I wanted to tell a story," he says. "You're at an event, you see something in an instant and you grab it. It was my art background that made me compose it just so. Like that Stokely shot, I got right in on him and cut out all the extraneous stuff."
Even after 40 years as a photographer, his camera remains a permanent fixture on his shoulder and his eyes still seek out the perfect shot no matter where he is. When he marvels at the imposing signs for "Posing Beauty," a relative insists that he stand in front of it for a picture. He immediately begins directing her — how much of the typeface to include in the frame, how much of the woman's face over his left shoulder. S
"Posing Beauty in African American Culture" runs through July 27 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard. For information, call 340-1405 or visit vmfa.museum.