6 Black Women in Photography Then and Now That You Should Know

"It is the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument."

~ Eve Arnold

Photographers have been capturing life moments from the 1830s. They have taken record of the greatest accounts since the Oregon Trail to the smallest moments that comprise the happiest times of our lives. Photographers find themselves being many things: observers, animal whisperers, and artists. But this makes sense as no one photographer is the same.

Photographers come from all walks of life and from every corner of the world. This allows them to be pioneers, innovators, and craftsmen of light. The work is varied and unique and what helps audiences relate to specific photographers whose works resonate with them. Every professional photographer brings their life into the work, and for this post, I want to highlight some wonderful photographers who I can certainly relate to.

It's women's history month and, as a black female photographer, I wanted to look at other black female photographers who have left their mark in this creative field. Black women have no shortage of feats under their belt. They make diligence, breaking molds, and soaring to new heights look easy and set new standards wherever they go. Photography is no different.

Florestine Perrault Collins

Florestine is accredited as the first black female photographer, but she wasn't the only one of her time. Out of around 100 black female photographers accounted for at the time, she was the only one recorded in the 1920 census.

Florestine began her photography journey at 14 and excelled in her craft and marketing to build a booming business in New Orleans. If there ever were a place for a black woman to excel in a creative business, New Orleans in the 1920s would be on the list. She leveraged passing as white to learn under white photographers which helped in building her business.

Despite being limited to working in studio and with a specific clientele because of race and gender, Florestine has a successful career of thirty years. Her work is notable for challenging the mainstream view of black women. Instead of displaying black women in a subservient or hypersexualized manner, Florestine purposefully composed portraits celebrating black femininity and her clients' individuality.

Photograph of Dorothy Dandridge taken by Vera Jackson

Vera Jackson

Jackson was a documentary photographer whose work evoked narrative thought. The paper she worked for, the California Eagle, captured images by black photographers for black readers to challenge the stereotypical portrayal of black people by white-oriented publications.

Jennie Louise Van Der Zee

Also known as Madame E. Toussaint Welcome, Welcome was an early 20th-century photographer who ran an art school and photography studio (The Toussaint Conservatory of Art and Music in Harlem) for over 40 years. She was remarkably one of the only black female filmmakers of the silent film industry.

Carrie Mae Weems

Bringing us further into the contemporary photography period is Weems whose work is still expanding. Born in Portland, Oregon in 1953, Weems has been on a multi-disciplinary mission that helps her cross traditional lines of photography, include other mediums in her work, and explore a passion-subject of dominant racial paradigms.

Although Weems goes back and forth between disciplines, her early beginnings with document photography seem to influence continuing work that delves into family, relationships, cultural identity, sexism, class, political systems, and consequences of power. From just those themes, she has plenty of material to work with in the future.

Lorna Simpson

Simpson is a photographer who found a love of the arts early. She picked up the camera as a result of travels and studies to challenge and engage her audience. Simpson honed a signature style of photo-text and anti-portraits. Like Weems, Simpson works across mediums and also tackles complex themes. The majority of her work deals with society's relationship with race.