Photographing the shadows

Teju Cole's essay on the photography of color

The print version of today's revamped New York Times Magazine featured an essay by one of my favorite writers at the moment, Teju Cole. Cole, a novelist, art historian and photographer, is also the magazine's photography critic. In this week's piece he takes a close look at the photography of color. Specifically, he discusses the way people with dark skin have been photographed by black photographers over the last 50 years. 

"Five Men, 1964," by Roy DeCarava, via nytimes.com

"Five Men, 1964," by Roy DeCarava, via nytimes.com

Back when Oprah Winfrey was hosting her daytime talk show, people would often joke about how her stage made everybody look good because the lighting and camera filters were calibrated show the depth and variance of black skin, therefore giving an attractive glow to all skin colors. I'm sure Oprah is more than smart enough to see the irony of her stage making black, white, caramel, beige and tawny skin beautiful while she and her production team broke through so many racial barriers. The fact is, cameras and film (you know, that stuff that had to be developed before there were computers to do it for us) were made and calibrated for the majority of the people who would be using them at first...as in when such equipment was first invented. They were calibrated to capture the reality of white skin for black-and-white or sepia photography.

The flat homogeny of black, hispanic or Asian skin in the professional photography of the 1960s - 1980s (90s?)  is clear in color or black-and-white. It was a technological flaw that was bemoaned by few, but, as Cole highlights, there were some who were able to take the tools at hand and use them to make important statements about race and societal vision.

Danai Gurira in "Mother of George." Credit: Oscilloscope Pictures/Everett Collection via nytimes.com

Danai Gurira in "Mother of George." Credit: Oscilloscope Pictures/Everett Collection via nytimes.com

The work of pioneers such as Roy DeCarava and Gordon Parks paved a way for today's photographers and cinematographers to explore image and racial perceptions at an incredibly conceptual level, using tools that are better made to work for everyone. It was exciting to read Cole's take on this, especially with the mention of Selma on the day of the Academy Awards, which is giving the movie an annoying snub* (and to see Danai Gurira used as a model to show how such explorations have evolved**).

But gradually, there comes an acceptance of the photograph and its subtle implications: that there’s more there than we might think at first glance, but also that when we are looking at others, we might come to the understanding that they don’t have to give themselves up to us. They are allowed to stay in the shadows if they wish.
— Teju Cole. "On Photography: What is dark is not empty; if you know how to see, there are glories in the shadows."

Take a look at the essay. What do you think #DiversityMeans in artistic vision today? Hopefully more writers like Cole will continue to force us to consider answers that will lead to more equitable representation of the many lives that intersect and play themselves out in our country.

*This link to David Carr's Jan. 18 article made me pause. The NYT columnist's death just 25 days later rocked the American writing world. 

**Because it's always fun to read a national piece and pretend like you're besties with someone in it, because once, in a crowded room full of people who were also dying to talk to the celebrity, you had a cool conversation about artistic process with her.