American History Through an African American Lens

Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture

Five You Should Know: African American Photographers


James VanDerZee  (1886-1983)

As the unofficial chronicler of the Harlem Renaissance, James VanDerZee’s Harlem portrait studio captured images of the city’s growing black middle class and celebrities, such as entertainer Florence Mills, dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, boxer Joe Louis, and minister Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and Powell’s son, politician Adam Jr.  He was also the official photographer of black separatist Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association.  VanDerZee often retouched and hand-tinted his photographs to project a sense of glamor, sophistication, and prosperity.


Florestine Perrault Collins (1895-1988)

During a time when few women made a successful living as photographers, Florestine Perrault Collins transcended both gender and color lines to become one of New Orleans’ most successful female photographers of the 1920s and 1930s.  Collins opened her first portraiture studio in her living room before moving her growing business to South Rampart Street in the early 1930s.  In addition to portraits, Collins captured many rites of passage for the city’s residents including weddings, graduations, communions and recitals.  She produced realistic portraits that portrayed her subjects with dignity and worth. Collins retired to California in 1949, but her images are remembered as important depictions of the 1920 “New Negro.”


Elizabeth “Tex” Williams  (1924- )

Elizabeth ‘Tex” Williams joined the Women’s Army Corp in 1944 and became an official army photographer.  During World War II she took pictures of “operations,  military maneuvers, and everyday activities in segregated barracks.”  Though African American photographers were generally barred from Army photo-schools and government training programs, Williams succeeded in becoming not only one of the few African Americans to receive such training, but also first female graduate of the Photographic Division School at Fort Monmouth, NJ.  


Moneta Sleet Jr. (1926-1996)

Moneta Sleet Jr. began his photography career as a child when his parents gave him a box camera. In 1950, Sleet began his career working for the Amsterdam News, a black newspaper in New York.  Sleet then joined the staff at Ebony Magazine in 1955, and covered the struggles of people of color throughout the world. He used his experience as an African American to document his subjects with compassion.  Sleet recorded major civil rights events such as the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; the 1965 Selma, Alabama march for voting rights; and the independence day celebrations in Nairobi, Kenya in 1963.  In 1969, he was the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize in Journalism for his photo of Coretta Scott King at the funeral of her husband Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


Gordon Parks (1912-2006)

Self-taught, Gordon Parks broke the color line when he started working with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) chronicling social conditions in 1941.  After the closure of the FSA, Parks began freelancing with fashion magazines and covering humanitarian issues.  His work with LIFE Magazine allowed him to photograph celebrities and politicians. His most famous photo is widely believed to be 1942’s “American Gothic.”  In 1969, Parks became the first African American to write and direct a Hollywood feature film based on his bestselling novel The Learning Tree. He followed up with 1971’s cult favorite Shaft.  Throughout his lifetime he received numerous awards including a National Medal of Arts in 1988 and over fifty honorary doctorates.

Written by Alison K., Digital Content Specialist, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.


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