New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement

By Lisa Gail Collins; Margo Natalie Crawford | Go to book overview

9
Transcending the
Fixity of Race
The Kamoinge Workshop and
the Question of a "Black
Aesthetic" in Photography

Erina Duganne

The African American photographer and filmmaker James Hinton first applied the term "black aesthetic" to photography in 1969 when he singled out Roy DeCarava as the "the first black man who chose by intent… to devote serious attention to the black aesthetic as it relates to photography and the black experience in America."1 In his statement, Hinton isolates DeCarava's photographs and defines them in relation to one predetermined value, DeCarava's racial identity.2 In a contemporary statement, DeCarava seems to corroborate Hinton's reading of his photographs. He writes: "You should be able to look at me and see my work. You should be able to look at my work and see me."3 Here DeCarava, like Hinton, appears to conflate his racial identity with the character of his work. However, upon closer inspection, one realizes that in evoking the word "me," DeCarava actually spoke not from the fixed position of race but from the multiple positions that he as a man of African descent inhabited within the structure of language.4

Hinton's classification of DeCarava as the creator of a "black aesthetic" in photography has by and large eclipsed DeCarava's interest in coming to terms with himself as a subject who speaks from a particular point of view. Conversely, the prominence that DeCarava has himself given since the late 1960s to the social purpose of his work has further exacerbated this problem. DeCarava explained in 1972: "I don't see art as an individual function as much as a social function."5 In this statement, DeCarava appears to contradict his prior emphasis on photography as a vehicle of self-expression. His account of "A Photographer's Gallery," an alternative photography space that he and his wife ran out of their home from 1955 to 1957 illuminates this discrepancy: "We are interested in that area of photography which strives for the expression of self, which seeks to extend the vision that which has heretofore been invisible and elusive."6 In

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