A new book honors unseen figures who for generations captured the most delicate moments of Black life.
In our family, my Aunt Burnett was the designated photographer. Or at least that’s what I thought when, as a child, I flipped through the family photo albums at her house. Her beautiful portraits—of my cousins, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and great-grandparents in southeastern Wisconsin—captured goofy faces, warm hugs, flawless scarves. Document our fact. Little did I know at the time that I was studying composition, depth of field, mood and intimacy when looking at her photographs. Only now is it clear to me that these books provided an early visual education about the extraordinary life of ordinary black life.
I remembered these lessons when I was reading Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life, by multidisciplinary artist Renata Cherlise. The book expands on a long-running project by Cherlise, which began in 2011 as a Tumblr page and then grew into her own website. Black Files it is a tangible and intimate artifact that expands the idea of Blackness in the United States, bridging past, present, and future through familial archival practices. The book celebrates the art and contribution of the amateur family photographer, an unseen figure who for generations captured and preserved the most tender moments of Black life.
Astutely edited by Cherlise, Black Files it shows charming motifs present in family snapshots, most of which are from the early 1940s to the late 90s. He prioritizes photos that show tenderness and pride in the subjects’ everyday lives: parents posing with their children on their porch, Christmas mornings, long evenings, birthdays, weddings. “Black mediocrity is still great, right?” Cherlise said in 2021 of the project. “It still deserves documentation and deserves to be highlighted by an archive.” Many of the images of Black people in the US, especially the images that circulated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, objectified and dehumanized them. Consequently, representations of Black life in the collective American memory exist largely on opposite sides of a spectrum—extreme degradation or extreme representations of excellence to counter that degradation. Churchill’s work asks, So what about the middle ground?
The selection of images in Black Files includes Cherlise’s family photos and photos from the public. It also features striking portraits from the archives of institutions such as the Lower Roxbury Black History Project at Northeastern University. Cherlise said this project began when she searched through historical archives in Jacksonville, Florida, for images of black people around the public housing complex where she spent the first three years of her life. Instead, he found mostly documentation of plague and destruction. Her observation is similar to one I made when I searched the Milwaukee County Historical Society for archival images of my neighborhood in Bronzeville and came across few photos of buildings and intersections before they were cleared for interstate highway construction. Eventually, Cherlise’s quest led her to the private photo collections of Black families.
Black Files conveys the idea that family snapshots and portraits can serve as a respite from the outside world and its gaze. Whether it’s a shirtless father holding his newborn, couples leaning into each other, or kids frolicking in the first snowfall of winter, the subjects are all seemingly comfortable in their own skin. The vulnerability telegraphed by each photograph suggests a trust between the photographer and the subject. Of this kind of documentary, Bell Hooks once wrote: “To enter black houses in my childhood was to enter a world that valued the visual, that affirmed our collective willingness to engage in a non-institutionalized curatorial process… Photographs taken in everyday life, snapshots in particular, rebelled against all those photographic practices that reinscribed colonial ways of seeing and receiving images of the black “other”. As a result, these depictions reflect family members with softness and whimsy.
The work of contemporary black photographers was also important in heralding the family snapshot. Fine artists like LaToya Ruby Frazier and Deana Lawson, for example, have expanded the American consciousness with photography that opposes dominant visual narratives. Frazier’s portrait of the family in Braddock, Pennsylvania subverts the standard fiction about working-class Americans. And Lawson’s portraits depict the raw glamor of black families of modest means. The amateur family photographer, however, is less interested in what a photograph has to say about Blackness in America. They are primarily concerned with photography that conveys the fact and enjoyment of simply being, with the constant hope that relatives will remember and enjoy the feeling behind the image. Yet, Black Files argues that these family snapshots viewed as a whole become good art—in conversation with the work of professional artists—because their composers mediate power and agency in each shot.
The pleasure of viewing photos in Black Files it stems primarily from the fact that none of the images are abstract and do not engage in righteous protest, advocacy or rebellion against cultural and social erasure. The pages of the book are devoted to familiar joys and dull days, to the sense of individuality that remained intact while the civil rights war continued just outside the frame. The audience can witness loving moments across decades and generations, perhaps recognizing themselves and the bonds they carry in these shared memories of home.
With Renata Churchill
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