Photographer of 'Black is Beautiful' movement, dies
Kwame Brathwaite, the pioneering activist and photographer whose work helped define the aesthetics of the “Black is Beautiful” movement of the 1960s and beyond, died on April 1, aged 85.
Kwame Brathwaite Credit: Cory Rice
Brathwaite’s photograph of models who embraced their natural hair, photographed in 1966. Credit: Courtesy The Kwame Brathwaite Archive
Using a Hasselblad medium-format camera, Brathwaite attempted to do the same, learning to work with limited light in a manner that enhanced the visual narrative of his imagery. He would soon also develop a darkroom technique that enriched and deepened how Black skin would appear in his photography, honing the practice in a small darkroom in his Harlem apartment. Brathwaite went on to photograph jazz legends performing throughout the 1950s and ’60s, including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and others.
By the early 1960s, alongside the rest of AJASS, Brathwaite began using his photography and organizing prowess to consciously push back against whitewashed, Eurocentric beauty standards. The group came up with the concept of the Grandassa Models, young Black women whom Brathwaite would photograph, celebrating and accentuating their features. In 1962, AJASS organized “Naturally ’62”, a fashion show held in a Harlem club called the Purple Manor and featuring the models. The show would go on to be held regularly until 1992. In 1966, Brathwaite married his wife Sikolo, a Grandassa Model whom he had met on the street the year prior when he asked if he could take her portrait. The two remained married for the rest of Brathwaite’s life.
Women in a car gathered for Garvey Day, the annual event commemorating Black activist Marcus Garvey. Credit: Courtesy The Kwame Brathwaite Archive
By the 1970s, Brathwaite’s focus on jazz shifted to other forms of popular Black music. In 1974, he traveled to Africa with the Jackson Five to document their tour, also photographing the historic “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in what’s now the Democratic Republic of Congo that same year. Commissions in this era also saw Brathwaite photographing Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Bob Marley and other music legends.
Top image: Kwame Brathwaite, “Untitled (Sikolo Brathwaite, Orange Portrait),” 1968