Kwame Brathwaite, the pioneering American photographer of Black communities, has died at the age of 85. After decades of working largely without institutional recognition, in recent years his vast archive of images has found a new audience through a number of museum shows and monographs, including a touring retrospective organised by Aperture in 2019. Yet his and editorial and studio portraits, published in magazines throughout his career, had long made Brathwaite an influential name amongst those in his community.
In 1956, Brathwaite co-founded the African Jazz and Art Society and Studios (AJASS). “We weren’t fond of just being coloured folks, being under the yoke of anybody else”, he told Aperture when interviewed in 2017, explaining the group’s forward-looking decision to use the word ‘African’. His work with the society led him to immerse himself in the dimly lit jazz clubs of the Bronx, documenting performers without the use of a flash. The resulting images reveal grainy, evocative portraits that capture the rhythms, the ebbs and flows of these nights. His early photographs captured musicians including Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, before going on to shoot everyone from the Jackson Five to Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston to Bob Marley, for commissions that would take him around the world to Africa, Europe and beyond.
During the 1960s, he began to photograph Black women who were cast on the streets of Harlem, New York, shooting them in informal studio portraits that celebrated their natural beauty. This ever-growing cohort of women came to be known as the ‘Grandassa Models’, a riff on the ancestral term for the African continent, ‘Grandassaland’. AJASS championed the phrase ‘Black is Beautiful’, first coined by Jamaican activist and writer Marcus Garvey, and it was through Brathwaite’s intimate, uplifting photographs of models that this slogan was popularised and given a lasting visual form.
It represented a point of view that remained consistent over the years for Brathwaite, as he continued to document the emotional lives and everyday encounters of Black Americans with both dignity and playful exuberance. In one of his final public appearances in 2018, he summarised his life’s work in one sentence: ‘I love Black people.’ It is a sentiment that continues to reverberate amongst the many artists who have been influenced by his celebratory work. These include the musician Rihanna, who took inspiration from his photographs of the Grandassa Models for her Fenty fashion line in 2019. He is survived by his wife of more than 50 years, Sikolo Brathwaite, and their son, Kwame Samori Brathwaite.