A City Through the Lens

Heila Nir | February 23, 2015
Ella Watson and her family, by Gordon Parks

Ella Watson and her family, by Gordon Parks

Thomas Allen Harris’ Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People is the first documentary to explore the role of photography in shaping the identity of African Americans after from end of slavery to the modern era. Inspired by the film’s imagery, we’ve highlighted the works of African American Photographers who have captured (and are still capturing) life and culture in New York City.


Gordon Parks (1912 – 2006)

After his death in 2006, Gordon Parks left behind a body of work that documents race relations, poverty, civil rights and urban life. His photo essay on the life of a Harlem gang leader won him a position at LIFE magazine as the first African-American photographer. His most famous images, such as Emerging Man (1952) and American Gothic (left, 1942) capture the essence of activism and humanitarianism in mid-twentieth century America and have become iconic images, defining their era for later generations.

James Van Der Zee (1886–1983)

Originally from Lenox, MA, James Augustus Van Der Zee opened up a photography studio in Harlem in 1916. Van der Zee worked during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, in the 1920s and 30s. The subjects of his photos were diverse, but his work is specifically noted for its depiction of middle-class African-American life. Van Der Zee was also known for capturing celebrities such as Florence Mills, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Hazel Scott. In 1969 Van Der Zee’s photographs were featured as part of the iconic Harlem on My Mind exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969.

Roy De Carava (1919 – 2009)

Roy DeCarava used Harlem as his canvas- becoming one of the mist important photographers of his generation by documenting the civil rights movement, lives of every day people and the some of the most talented Jazz musicians of his time. DeCarava originally studied to be a painter, but photography became his primary medium as his career progressed. His first solo exhibition was in 1969 at the Studio Museum in Harlem and was the first African American to win a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2006.

Jamel Shabazz (1960 – present)

Jamel Shabazz, an author and self-taught photographer, has been documenting the ‘urban life’ for over 30 years. A Brooklyn native, Jamel documented hip hop style and culture in New York City during the 1970s and 80s. His inspiration came from the great James Van Der Zee, Gordon Parks, Robert Capa, Chester Higgins and Eli Reed. His work was featured in an exhibition “Street Art Street Life: From the 1950s to Now” at the Bronx Museum of Arts in 2008.

Deborah Willis (1948 – present)

Deborah Willis, Ph.D, is Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She has pursued a dual professional career as an art photographer and as one of the nation’s leading historians of African American photography and curator of African American culture.

Watch Through A Lens Darkly now on thirteen.org

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