What Ordinary Family Photos Teach Us About Ourselves
A new book honors unsung figures who have for generations captured the most delicate moments of Black life.
In our family, my aunt Burnette was the designated photographer. Or at least that was what I thought when, as a child, I’d page through the family photo albums at her home. Her beautiful portraits—of my cousins, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and great-grandparents in southeastern Wisconsin—captured silly faces, warm cuddles, flawless stunting. She documented the fact of us. I wasn’t aware at the time that I was studying composition, depth of field, mood, and intimacy when looking at her pictures. Only now is it clear to me that those books provided an early visual literacy for the extraordinary in ordinary Black life.
I was reminded of those lessons when reading Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life, by the multidisciplinary artist Renata Cherlise. The book expands on a long-standing project of Cherlise’s, which began in 2011 as a Tumblr page and then developed into its own website. Black Archives is a tangible and intimate artifact that widens the idea of Blackness in the United States, bridging past, present, and future through familial archiving practices. The book honors the craft and contribution of the amateur family photographer, an unsung figure who has for generations captured and preserved the most delicate moments of Black life.
With Cherlise’s astute curation, Black Archives shows charming patterns present in family snapshots, the bulk of which are from the early 1940s to the late ’90s. She prioritizes photos that show tenderness and pride in the subjects’ quotidian life: parents posing with their children on their porch, Christmas mornings, grand evenings out, birthdays, weddings. “Black mediocrity is still exceptional, right?” Cherlise said in 2021 of the project. “It’s still worthy of documentation and still worthy of being highlighted from an archive.” Much of the imagery of Black people in the U.S., especially imagery circulated during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, objectified and dehumanized them. Consequently, representations of Black life in the collective American memory exist largely on opposite sides of a spectrum—extreme degradation or extreme representations of excellence to counter that degradation. Cherlise’s work asks, What, then, of the middle ground?
The selection of images in Black Archives includes Cherlise’s own family photos and crowdsourced pictures from the public. It also features striking portraits from institutional archives, such as the Lower Roxbury Black History Project at Northeastern University. Cherlise has said that this project began when she searched historical archives in Jacksonville, Florida, for images of Black people around the public-housing complex where she spent the first three years of her life; instead, she mainly found documentation of blight and disrepair. Her observation is similar to one I made when I searched the Milwaukee County Historical Society for archival images of my Bronzeville neighborhood, and encountered scant photos of buildings and intersections before they were cleared for interstate-highway construction. Ultimately, Cherlise’s endeavor led her to the private photo collections of Black families.
Black Archives conveys the idea that family snapshots and portraits can serve as a respite from the outside world and its gaze. Whether it’s a shirtless father holding his newborn, couples leaning into each other, or children frolicking in winter’s first snowfall, the subjects are all seemingly comfortable in their skin. The vulnerability that each photo telegraphs connotes trust between the photographer and the subject. Of this sort of documentary, bell hooks once wrote, “To enter black homes in my childhood was to enter a world that valued the visual, that asserted our collective will to participate in a noninstitutionalized curatorial process … Photographs taken in everyday life, snapshots in particular, rebelled against all those photographic practices that reinscribed colonial ways of looking and capturing the images of the black ‘other.’” As a result, these depictions reflect family members with a softness and whimsy.
Contemporary Black photographers’ work has also been significant in heralding the familial snapshot. Fine artists such as LaToya Ruby Frazier and Deana Lawson, for instance, have expanded the American consciousness with photography that counters dominant visual narratives. Frazier’s portraiture of her family in Braddock, Pennsylvania, upends canonical fiction about working-class Americans. And Lawson’s portraits depict the raw glamour of Black families of modest means. The amateur family photographer, however, is less interested in what a photo has to say about Blackness in America. They are principally concerned with photography that communicates the fact and delight of simply existing, the enduring hope being that relatives will remember and relish the feeling behind the picture. Still, Black Archives asserts that these family snapshots viewed in the aggregate become a fine art of sorts—in conversation with the work of professional artists—because their composers broker power and agency in each shot.
The pleasure of viewing photographs in Black Archives derives mainly from the fact that none of the images are abstract, and they don’t engage in righteous protest, defending, or rebelling against cultural and social erasure. The book’s pages are dedicated to familiar joys and listless days, to the sense of personhood that remained intact while the war for civil rights continued just outside the frame. Audiences can bear witness to loving moments across decades and generations, perhaps recognizing themselves and the bonds they carry in these shared memories of home.
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