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Celebrating Black History with Photography Books & Catalogues

Special Collections has a variety of books related to the history, production and exhibition of photography. In honour of Black History Month, we are featuring exhibition catalogues and books centering Black photographers, artists and curators. Although this is a small sample from the collection, all of these works highlight the importance of self-documentation in photography as a way to celebrate communities and counter the historical misrepresentation of Black people.

In the 1948 book “Camera Portraits : the techniques and principles of documentary portraiture” Gordon Parks shares insight into how he photographed 40 individuals with his unique style of photography. He recounts his interactions with the subjects and analyses his overall approach to the portrait. Parks also includes valuable technical elements for each photograph, such as the camera model, exposure, film stock and light source.

Cover of the book Imagining Families: Images and Voices. Two photographs are shown, one depicts a while family with a young Black boy, the other is a similar portrait but heavily scratched out.

“Imagining Families : Images and Voices” is the catalogue for the 1994 inaugural exhibition at the National African American Museum at the Smithsonian Institute. It was shown at the Anacostia Community Museum, years before the Smithsonian established a permanent building for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016. 

Deborah Willis and Claudine Brown curated the works of 15 artists who examine roles played within families and communities. The catalogue recounts how the exhibition was created when the Smithsonian was contemplating the need for a dedicated museum to preserve African American history. They were unsure if they would receive enough donations to build a museum collection and some believed that African American material culture was already preserved in other museum branches.

The exhibition served as an inspiration for underrepresented communities to self-document their stories and validated personal narratives as a key part of history.

Front book cover with the title "A Portland Family album: Self-portrait of African American Community" with a black and white photograph depicting two Black women in front of a house

The 1995 exhibition “A Portland Family Album : self-portrait of an African-American community.” was developed using archival photographs. The images were donated by several local families and new prints were created for exhibition purposes. The works were shown at Blue Sky Gallery in Portland.

Cover of book with the text "Contact Sheet" and "Embracing Eatonville". The cover has a black and white image of a house with a large tree in front.

The 2003-2004 exhibition “Embracing Eatonville : a photographic survey” presented works by Dawoud Bey, Lonnie Graham, Carrie Mae Weems and Deborah Willis. Eatonville, Florida is one of the oldest Black towns to be incorporated in the United States. In 2002, the four artists were tasked to capture the spirit of this historical city through documentary photography. Each photographer brought their unique approach to this exhibition to provide a snapshot of the community and its landscape. The exhibition was shown at Light Work in New York and the Robert B. Menschel Media Center in Eatonville.

Special Collections books can be searched through the Library’s catalogue. The Library also has access to fantastic documentaries on the topic, including Through a Lens Darkly which is based on the book “Reflections in Black : a history of Black photographers, 1840 to the present” by Deborah Willis. The documentary explores the significance of family photo albums and examines the depiction of Black subjects throughout history.

Our book collection is constantly growing! Keep an eye for the announcement of the winners of this year’s First Edition Book Award.