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4 Black Photographers of the 20th Century That Shaped American History

The 20th Century was the advent of photography as both an art form and as a historical medium. Photography, no matter the specific genre, captures the world of the photographer and their environment. Fine art is influenced by the world while photojournalism and street photography are frozen moments from the world. These are 4 photographers that not only captured their worlds but helped preserve and tell the stories of the African-American experience in the United States.


1. James Van Der Zee (1886 - 1983)

"Being an artist, I had an artist's instincts. You can see the picture before it's taken; then it's up to you to get the camera to see." - James Van Der Zee

James Van Der Zee was an African-American photographer during the Harlem Renaissance in New York City. Originally from Lenox, Massachusetts, Van Der Zee was given a camera at age fourteen and began to document the history of his small town. 1906 found him in Harlem for the first time and after a few years establishing himself in portraiture in Newark, New Jersey, he returned to Harlem to open Guarantee Photo Studio. He became the most successful photographer in Harlem and he photographed Black icons of the early 20th century like Marcus Garvey, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and Countee Cullen. After a few decades of struggle as a result of the economic hardships of the 1930s, he was rediscovered by photographers and historians and given a rebirth in popularity where he became a photographer for celebrities and allowed his influence and fame to grow beyond New York City.

Watson, E. (2007, February 12) James Van Der Zee (1886-1983). Retrieved from


2. Gordon Parks (1912 - 2006)

"I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera." -Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks had an interest in photography at a very early age and purchased his first camera from a pawnshop. He taught himself how to take photographs and found himself as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to document the nation's social conditions. In 1943, the FSA closed and Parks pivoted to freelance photographer where he would photograph for fashion magazines and continue to document humanitarian issues. Eventually his work led him to become the first African-American staff photographer for Life Magazine where he stayed for two decades. He worked until his death in 2006 and had been honored for his work including several honorary doctorates and the National Medal of Arts in 1988.

The Gordon Parks Foundation.


3. Roy DeCarava (1919 - 2009)

"The artist creates the material that we look back upon as part of history." - Roy DeCarava

Born in Harlem in 1919, Roy DeCarava was a contemporary of Gordon Parks and James Van Der Zee. However, he did not begin photography until 1940 where he began to capture the essence of daily life and fervor of the Harlem Renaissance. DeCarava was against what he described as "black people...not being portrayed in a serious and artistic way.” He evolved and grew a unique style that took images that were both important to tell true stories of Harlem at this time, but were also presenting subjects with an artistic appearance and dignified depiction. He was the first African-American recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship in 1952 and in 1955 had his work appear in the exhibit The Family of Man. Still in 1955, he collaborated with Harlem Renaissance artist Langston Hughes on The Sweet Flypaper of Life. DeCarava sought to produce work that understood Blacks in a manner that only Blacks truly could understand.



4. Carrie Mae Weems (Born 1953)

"Sometimes my work needs to be photographic, sometimes it needs words, sometimes it needs to have a relationship with music, sometimes it needs all three and become a video projection." - Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems is an African-American artist noted for her photography but also exemplary in other media such as fabric, text, audio, video, and more. As the only photographer on today's list that is still alive, she continues to delve deep into the areas of family relationships, cultural identity, sexism, class, political systems, and the consequences of power. She is a titan of artistic influence and has had her work displayed nationally and internationally and is represented in public and private exhibitions around the world. She was the 2013 recipient of the MacArthur Genius grant and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She has received scores of awards and has been recognized for her work across several media and has been the recipient of many honorary degrees from institutions across the United States.

Carrie Mae Weems.

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