The Washington Post: Kwame Brathwaite, whose photos said ‘Black is beautiful,’ dies at 85

The Washington Post

For more than six decades, New York photographer Kwame Brathwaite was a joyous chronicler of Black life and culture, taking candid, richly textured pictures of beauty pageants and boxing matches, street scenes and political rallies, sun-drenched festivals and dimly lit jazz clubs. He photographed celebrities including Muhammad Ali, James Brown and Bob Marley, but he also shot anonymous men and women who, with their dark skin and natural hair, were all but invisible to his peers, or were otherwise poorly captured in images that left their features whitewashed and distorted.

 

While toiling away in his Harlem darkroom, Mr. Brathwaite developed processing techniques that helped him illuminate Black skin on film. The resulting photos amplified and uplifted the “Black Is Beautiful” movement, which he helped propel in the 1960s while organizing fashion shows that championed Black beauty, pride and solidarity in the midst of the civil rights movement.

 

Mr. Brathwaite, an artist, activist and photojournalist who said he aimed to depict “the essence of Black experience, as a feeling, a drive and an emotion,” was 85 when he died April 1 at a hospital in Manhattan. His death was confirmed by his son, Kwame S. Brathwaite, who did not cite a cause.

 

In a 2017 article for the photography journal Aperture, historian Tanisha C. Ford wrote that Mr. Brathwaite had spent so many years in the darkroom, “dipping his fingers into harsh developing chemicals,” that he had started to wear down the grooves of his fingertips, transforming his body while striving to better capture the bodies of his subjects.

 

“With every dip, measurement of solution, and timing of exposure, Brathwaite styles blackness,” she added. “His images, carefully calibrated to reflect a moment precisely, made black beautiful for those who lived in the 1960s, and continue to do so for a generation today who might only now be discovering his work.”

 

Mr. Brathwaite took pictures for Black-owned publications including the New York Amsterdam News, City Sun and Essence magazine, in addition to serving as a house photographer for Harlem’s Apollo Theater and contributing to the British music magazine Blues & Soul. His work bridged art and politics: He documented the 1994 inauguration of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first Black president, and also photographed performances by jazz greats including Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, whom he photographed from bench-height at the 1959 Randalls Island Jazz Festival, capturing the pianist in a monumental pose.

 

In 1972, he photographed the Wattstax benefit concert in Los Angeles, snapping a picture of Isaac Hayes — sporting a vest of gold chains — that the soul singer used for an album cover. Two years later, Mr. Brathwaite accompanied the Jackson 5 on their first African tour and shot the Rumble in the Jungle, heavyweight championship fight between Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Away from the ring, he captured Foreman playing with his German shepherd and photographed Ali sitting alongside the Congo River, watching the water flow by under a gray, cloudy sky.

 

Mr. Brathwaite collaborated for many years with his older brother, Elombe Brath, who shared his interests in the Pan-African and black nationalist philosophies espoused by Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey. In 1956, they helped found the African Jazz-Art Society and Studios, which put on jazz performances, art exhibitions and eventually fashion shows, including what was arguably Mr. Brathwaite’s most influential project, the “Naturally ’62” pageant.

 

Organized in January 1962 at a Harlem night club named Purple Manor, the show was a celebration of Black beauty and marked the debut of an all-Black troupe called the Grandassa Models. The group was named after Grandassaland, a term that black nationalist Carlos A. Cooks, one of Mr. Brathwaite’s political idols, used to refer to the African continent, and included women whom Mr. Brathwaite and his brother spotted on the street. They wore their own clothes, including African-inspired outfits they designed and made themselves, and styled their hair naturally instead of straightening it.

 

At the time, “it was unacceptable to wear your hair in any natural hairstyle,” Mr. Brathwaite recalled in a 2019 interview with the beauty website Hello Beautiful. “The point that was being made was that you can be your natural self and be proud of who you are, and not accept another person’s standard of beauty as your own.”

 

The show featured dancing and music, with a house band that included drummer Max Roach and jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. “The line to get in was so long we ended up clearing the venue and doing a second show,” Mr. Brathwaite told Vogue. He and his colleagues continued to produce “Naturally” pageants for years, and the show was credited with helping promote the “Black Is Beautiful” slogan, which appeared in the background of some of Mr. Brathwaite’s pictures along with phrases like “Buy Black.”

 

The second of three sons, Gilbert Ronald Brathwaite was born Jan. 1, 1938, in what he affectionately called “the People’s Republic of Brooklyn.” His parents were immigrants from Barbados and moved the family to the South Bronx when Mr. Brathwaite was young. His father was a tailor who owned a dry-cleaning business, and his mother sold coconut bread out of the home. Like his older brother, Mr. Brathwaite eventually adopted an African 

name, in his case as a tribute to Ghanaian independence leader Kwame Nkrumah.

 

After studying at the School of Industrial Art (now the High School of Art and Design) in Manhattan, Mr. Brathwaite considered becoming a graphic designer. But in 1955, at age 17, he saw photographs of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy from Chicago who had been abducted, tortured and lynched that summer by White men in Mississippi. Pictures of Till’s mutilated body, taken by David Jackson for Jet magazine, galvanized the civil rights movement and introduced Mr. Brathwaite to photography’s potential as a catalyst for social change.

 

The next year, he was stunned to see a photographer take pictures at Club 845, a shadowy jazz venue in the Bronx, without using a flash. It seemed like magic, and inspired Mr. Brathwaite to buy a Hasselblad medium-format camera and begin taking pictures himself. “I just fell in love with the textures,” he said, according to the New York Times, “the slight graininess of it.”

 

In 1966, he married Sikolo Sumter, a Grandassa Model, the year after meeting her on the sidewalk and asking to take her photograph. She survives him, as does their son, who has helped preserve Mr. Brathwaite’s work as head of the Kwame Brathwaite Archive; a daughter, Ndola Carlest; a brother; and four grandchildren. His brother Brath died in 2014.

 

Mr. Brathwaite was still accepting commissions at age 80, photographing the artist Joanne Petit-Frère for the New Yorker, and retired in 2018 just as his work was gaining increasing recognition. His first major retrospective debuted the next year at Los Angeles’s Skirball Cultural Center. Another exhibition, “Things Well Worth Waiting For,” is now on view at the Art Institute of Chicago and focuses on his relationship to music.

 

Mr. Brathwaite was an amateur tenor saxophonist and would play jazz records during some of his shoots, trying to channel the music’s rhythm in his images. “You want to get the feeling, the mood that you’re experiencing when they’re playing,” he told Ford in an interview. “That’s the thing. You want to capture that.” 

April 12, 2023
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