Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Photographs of Black Poets Matter: Victoria Smith and Of Poetry and Protest

Tyehimba Jess

There's poet Reginald Harris looking directly at us. Is it the second just before a wonderful smile? There's Nikky Finney and her flowing locks. Cornelius Eady greets us in mid laugh. Oh, and check out the joyous open-mouthed laugh or shout of Patricia Spears Jones. Or, the way Kelly Norman Ellis looks and smiles in our direction. And then Tyehimba Jess, turned somewhat to the side, but looking at us. Like with the image of Eugene B. Redmond, Jess wears one of his signature hats.
Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016) edited by Philip Cushway and Michael Warr constitutes a notable moment in the visual history of African American poetry. We have hundreds, no, thousands of books by African American poets, but relatively few widely available photographic images of the writers, at least in book form.   

Photographer Victoria Smith trains her camera lens on 43 prominent poets, and we're better because of it. See presents Amiri Baraka, Camille T. Dungy, Evie Shockley, Sterling Plumpp, Toi Derricotte, Quincy Troupe, and more in the images. They're remarkable outstanding photographs, offering intimate portraits of poets we've read closely over the decades. 

Wanda Coleman
Smith distinguished herself photographing professional musicians.  Among other major projects, she served as an the official photographer for SXSW, and she has covered the Glastonbury festival. She brought her wide-ranging experiences capturing musical performances by artists and thousands of people in expansive venues to this project. The results are multifaceted. A close-up image of Yusef Komunyakaa staring directly forward. Two images of the late Wanda Coleman, one with her looking smiling, and another with her hands partially covering her face, as she adjusts her glasses. An image of Haki Madhubuti smiling and looking downward, and an adjoining image that show his hands crossed on his knee.   

 I'm very much aware that we can and should write more about the actual writings of poets. I spend considerable amounts of time doing just that. At the same time, as a kind of cultural historian, I've also recognized how texts beyond the linguistic texts shape our reading experiences. And, well, photographs matter. In this case, photographs of black poets matter.

I first began thinking seriously about the photographic documentation of black poets in 2003, as I encountered the more than 100,000 photographs in Eugene B. Redmond's collection. His images of Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and many others caught my attention, and I became aware that in addition to being poets, they and many others were notably photogenic.

Marilyn Nelson

While Redmond's photographs captured most of my attention, I was also aware of the images of writers in I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women who Changed America (1989) by Brian Lanker and  African American Writers: Portraits and Visions (2001) by Lynda Koolish. Smith's images correspond with those books, and she goes even further back.

Remember those author portraits done by Carl Van Vechten? His images of various prominent artists came to mind as I thought about these wonderful images in Of Poetry and Protest. Yet, here, the poets have their own, modern and contemporary histories. I've enjoyed reading the poems and photographs in this book.  

Of Poetry and Protest and its aesthetic forces
Amiri Baraka's presence in Of Poetry and Protest

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