Kwame Brathwaite, a photographer and activist whose stylish images forced many to see Black beauty anew, inspiring generations of artists who came after him, died at 85. His son, Kwame Brathwaite, Jr., shared news of Brathwaite’s death on social media on Sunday.
While Brathwaite’s work has only recently attained mainstream recognition in the form of museum retrospectives and monographs, his photography has acted for many decades as a guiding force to many. It has appeared in publications and on album covers, and has been credited with ushering in new forms of representation, particularly for Black women.
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“His images, carefully calibrated to reflect a moment precisely, made black beautiful for those who lived in the 1960s, and continue to do so for a generation today who might only now be discovering his work,” the historian Tanisha C. Ford wrote in Aperture in 2017.
During the ’60s, in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, Brathwaite and his brother Elombe Brath undertook a number of activities that brought the former’s images to the attention of their community. In organizing a portrait studio, shoots of famed musicians, fashion shows, and more, Brathwaite popularized the phrase “Black is beautiful,” which had derived from Marcus Garvey and the Pan-Africanist movement of the ’20s.
In 1956, Brathwaite and Brath cofounded African Jazz and Art Society and Studios (AJASS) with some of their friends. The organization took as its inspiration the many jazz societies that had flourished before it, with one key difference signified in its name: the word “African,” which was then unfashionable.
At the time, words like “colored” or “Negro” were more commonly used to describe Black people. But as Brathwaite told Ford, “We weren’t fond of just being colored folks, being under the yoke of anybody else.”
Brathwaite took up photography during the mid-’50s after witnessing a friend taking pictures of a club without the use of flash. Fascinated by what he saw taking place, Brathwaite took up a Hasselblad camera and began using Kodak Tri-X film, which allows its photographer to move quickly. “I just fell in love with the textures, the slight graininess of it,” Brathwaite said of his chosen format.
Some of Brathwaite’s earliest photographs, taken when he was still in his 20s, document a range of musicians, from Duke Ellington to Thelonious Monk to Miles Davis. By the early ’70s, he was what the New York Times once called “unofficial house photographer for the Apollo Theater,” the famed performance venue where artists like Whitney Houston and Chaka Khan passed before his lens.
What Brathwaite end up producing was something different from traditional photojournalism. Many of his black-and-white images are cloaked in darkness or shot from obscure angles that conceal visual information that would seem required, like the crowds watching or parts of his subjects’ instruments. Instead, Brathwaite appeared attentive and reactive to the music being performed—he worked in a mode that some critics have even compared to jazz itself.
In 1962, AJASS staged the first of its “Naturally” fashion shows, for which the models who walked the runway were sourced from the community with the help of Jimmy Abu, a member of the organization. Many of these models had skin that was darker than the light tones of Black women who appeared in fashion magazines at the time, and they wore their hair in “natural” styles. The young women who walked the runway were known as Grandassa Models, a reference to the word used to describe Africa by the politician Carlos Cooks.
Brathwaite recalled that his images of these models initiated some disagreement within his community, telling Aperture, “There was lots of controversy because we were protesting how, in Ebony magazine, you couldn’t find an ebony girl.”
Brathwaite’s pictures sometimes display women in mod styles in everyday settings, as in one famous black-and-white picture taken in the yard of a nondescript, somewhat rundown building in Harlem. Many more, however, are captured in brilliant color, with the models depicted against cool pastel blues or flaming reds. Some wear beaded headpieces or earrings by Carolee Prince.
These photographs are today widely known. In 2019, Rihanna even paid homage to them for one of the campaigns for her Fenty cosmetics label, telling Vogue, “When I was coming up with the concept for this release, we were just digging and digging and we came up with these images—they made me feel they were relevant to what we are doing right now.”
Kwame Brathwaite was born on January 1, 1938 in Brooklyn, New York, and moved to the South Bronx when he was 5. Initially, he had set out to become a graphic designer. But the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 and the photographs of his dead body that were published by Jet with his mother Mamie’s permission moved Brathwaite in a different direction.
In 1965, he met a young woman named Sikolo, whom he spotted while she was shopping on 125th Street. Brathwaite told her he was a photographer and invited her to model for him. She would do so, even appearing in some of Brathwaite’s most widely seen images. The two would wed in 1966.
The “Black is beautiful” aesthetic that Brathwaite espoused was exported through a photography studio next to the Apollo Theater where he would take pictures for a fee and where merchandise was sold. He and his brother also operated Grandassa Land, a 135th Street space where poetry readings and other events were held, and took their fashion shows to Chicago and Detroit. Meanwhile, Brathwaite’s photographs would appear on commission in various publications.
During the ’70s, Brathwaite traveled to Africa, visiting countries such as Egypt, Tanzania, Kenya, and more. He followed the Jackson Five to Ghana and turned his camera on events such as the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Forman.
But it was the “Black is beautiful” pictures which would continue to remain his most famous. He would continue shooting ones in a similar mode, even photographing Joanne Petit-Frère, the sculptor of hair pieces for Beyoncé and Solange, for the New Yorker in 2018. These works were cited as a primary influence for a burgeoning group of young Black fashion photographers by the critic Antwaun Sargent in a 2019 book on the subject.
Since 2019 Aperture has been touring a Brathwaite retrospective that has made stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin, Detroit, and other cities and most recently visited the New-York Historical Society. A separate exhibition focused on music in Brathwaite’s art is now on view at the Art Institute of Chicago.
The impact of Brathwaite’s photography continues to ripple out to the general public, but it has also been felt on a micro level by his subjects. Earlier this year, the New York Amsterdam News reported that the Grandassa models were still meeting weekly by Zoom.
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“Our role is to be role models for our young people and to let them know we are fine as we are and don’t have to emulate other people,” Sikolo Brathwaite said in a panel earlier this year. “We have so much more work to do.”