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This Overlooked Black Photographer Documented Generations

“Art is the totality of our being, the totality of our experience,” says John Simmons. “Every time I press the shutter, it’s the totality of who I am and all that I’ve experienced.”

The veteran photographer and cinematographer, who came of age in Chicago, has been tirelessly documenting the world around him since the 1960s, putting a spotlight on the minutiae of life, reveling in the beauty of intimate moments, and celebrating the unseen details of Black culture — a couple tenderly caressing on public transit; a church lady deeply, joyously overcome in a praise song; a young man, Will, proudly spread out on a Chevy automobile.

Black photographer
John Simmons, “Will on Chevy” (1971), Nashville, TN

Simmons calls his documentarian eye an “intuitive quality that transcends time,” a befitting sentiment that his photographs reflect to a tee. His black and white images offer a seamless visual connection between decades, cities, and diasporas.

Simmons’s career began in his mid-teens, when Bobby Sengstacke, a well-known Civil Rights photojournalist in Chicago, gave him a copy of The Sweet Flypaper of Life. The literary collaboration between Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes and famed Kamoinge photographer Roy DeCarava interweaves image and text to chronicle a day in the life of a Harlem grandmother and her loved ones. Simmons found himself immediately inspired by the ability of these images to tell day-to-day truths of city life.

John Simmons, “The Nation,” Nashville, TN

“I started taking photographs at a very interesting time and in a very interesting environment,” Simmons tells me over the phone. “Chicago was a very hip place in the ’60s, and it was a very politically active place. […] Growing up in the Black community of Chicago, there’s an affinity to the subject matter. My imagery basically reflects the life I live, as it does today.”

Much of his work weaves a faithful, touching historic archive of Black Chicagoans and their everyday. (Simmons’s work, however, is not entirely limited to Black individuals. As he traveled outside of Chicago, he began to photograph a number of diasporic communities, touching on the interconnectivity of the cross-cultural human experience.)

black photographer
John Simmons, “Love on the Bus” (1967), Chicago, IL

Since his jumpstart in ’60s, Simmons’s archive of images grew more and more as he traveled across the globe. As his career progressed, he traveled across the United States and around the world to document aesthetics of the Black disapora, visually tying them together through black and white photography.

He photographed boys in Trinidad and Tobago, Black Panthers in Tennessee, and nannies in Chicago, but their stories laced into one another through his intimate style of image making. He went on to photograph candid moments of iconic figures in Civil Rights and Black liberation movements, like Rosa Parks, Amiri Baraka, Nina Simone, and Angela Davis.

John Simmons, “Boys with Cannon” (2009), Trinidad and Tobago

“Like a style of writing, it’s a style of seeing,” he says of his work. “A lot of people say that there’s a real continuity from my first photograph to my most recent photograph.”

His subjects seldom seem bothered by the camera’s presence; those who appear aware of the lens, welcome it — perhaps because Simmons made them feel at ease, as a familiar face in the streets of Chicago, Nashville, and beyond.

“I don’t know my subjects, I just take pictures,” he says. “My relationship to them is basically being grateful for them to be there. All my stuff happens in an instant. Whatever I’m photographing, if I look at it, it’s probably gone.”

“Our paths have to cross at that moment for that to happen, and the timing is so important, it can’t happen any other way. It’s supposed to happen at that moment,” he muses. “It’s amazing how all their experiences have brought them to that moment and all of my experiences have brought me to that moment, allowing us to share that moment in time and give it to everybody. I think it’s so amazing it gives me chills.”

John Simmons, Angela Davis Free Nashville TN 1972.

Simmons speaks of his work with deserved pride. He pinpoints his 1965 photograph “Man With a Pistol” as a transcendent moment in his artistic course, calling it one of the first photographs he ever fell in love with.

But after decades of photographing, nearly all of his work was lost in a fire.

As he planned to move apartments, he stored his work in a friend’s garage. Just days later, he received a call telling him the garage had caught fire. He tucked his pants into his socks, he says, trekking amongst the rubble and the rats (he discovered that there had been grains stored in the garage that he had not been informed of) and went to rescue his negatives.

He found everything stuck together; much was tainted by water damage. He then began the serious, painstaking process of trying to rescue these negatives. There are still photos he hasn’t recovered, and some he is still rediscovering when old friends send him scans of the images he’d gifted along the years, as he regathers his impressive body of work.

In a tragic instant, Simmons’s integral images of Black history were nearly lost — many still are. But those that remain, sing triumphantly, and sweetly.

Though an Emmy Award-winning cinematographer and professor of cinematography at the University of California, Los Angeles, Simmons’s photographic work has been far less known. The fire was a wakeup call; Simmons knew he needed to create a mark for himself and his historical work.

John Simmons, “The Black Man” (1969), New York, NY

After a friend introduced Simmons to Perfect Exposure Gallery in Los Angeles, Simmons had his first solo show, It Started in the 60s, in 2016. Anxiously anticipating his public debut as an art photographer, Simmons says he didn’t know how his work would be received.

His next show with the gallery, Life in Black and White, occurred in 2018; in just two months, over 2,000 people visited the exhibition, newly introduced to a vital new collection of images and a firsthand perspective on Black experiences since the 1960s.

“It gave new life to what those pictures were about,” he says of the exhibition.

Simmons still carries a camera every day. His website is an expansive, fascinating digital gallery of its own accord. “I never stopped taking pictures,” he says. But since the ’60s, “I feel like I’ve matured in my vision, in my storytelling. I feel like I express the narrative of humanity better now than I did when I was young. […] I have a real affection to this experience that we’re all having. If I didn’t do this, I don’t know what I would do.”


Source: Hyperallergic


The Photos That Lifted Up the Black Is Beautiful Movement

The intersection of West 125th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem was, for decades, a center of Black nationalism. Street orators — that’s what they were called — climbed onto stepladders and made impassioned calls for African liberation.

When Kwame Brathwaite and his brother Elombe Brath were teenagers in the 1950s, they would walk there from their dad’s dry cleaning shop and listen, entranced, for hours. Mr. Brath once recounted the story of Carlos Cooks, a student of Marcus Garvey, bellowing to a black woman walking by: “Your hair has more intelligence than you. In two weeks, your hair is willing to go back to Africa and you’ll still be jivin’ on the corner.” (Two weeks was just about how long hot-combed styles kept a black woman’s hair straight.)

After a few years of standing rapt at that corner, the brothers helped found the African Jazz Art Society and Studios, an artist collective also known as AJASS. The group produced concerts “to promote awareness of African-derived black music and dance forms,” Tanisha C. Ford, a historian, wrote in her book “Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul.”

The Black Is Beautiful Movement

Untitled (Photo shoot at a school for one of the many modeling groups who had begun to embrace natural hairstyles in the 1960s), 1966.CreditKwame Brathwaite/Courtesy of Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles


Untitled (Carolee Prince — Designer), 1964.CreditKwame Brathwaite/Courtesy of Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles


Black Is Beautiful
Untitled (Men at photoshoot at a school in the 1960s), 1966.CreditKwame Brathwaite/Courtesy of Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles

It was with AJASS that Mr. Brathwaite started his career in photography, taking pictures first of the artists at the shows and then of residents of Harlem generally. AJASS later expanded its arts activism to include the Grandassas — black women the group recruited to model. Black women with kinky hair, full lips, dark skin, and curvy bodies. Black women who could show other black women that blackness was something to take pride in.

Kwame Brathwaite documented them all.

“Kwame Brathwaite: Celebrity and the Everyday,” at the Philip Martin Gallery in Los Angeles, features Mr. Brathwaite’s images of the Grandassas. They were women who connected their natural hair to their politics — some sheepishly, yet with increasing feelings of empowerment when fashion show audiences cheered for them; and others proudly, as activists already invested in the politics of black beauty.

The show also includes images of celebrities like Muhammad Ali and Stevie Wonder, both of whom Mr. Brathwaite had befriended through his work as a photographer.

Black Power has been considered the more militant race reform effort, emerging as a splinter group from civil rights, and aligning more closely with black nationalism. ‘Black is beautiful’ became its slogan, widely hailed in the mid-1960s by its artists-activists belonging to the Black Arts Movement. A lot of the early contributions to the Black Arts Movement, like Mr. Brathwaite’s, got lost in this parsing of ideologies. But scholars have now positioned the black power movement alongside the civil rights movement, noting their overlapping concerns and shared visions.

Untitled (Fashion show at Renaissance Casino and Ballroom), 1967.CreditKwame Brathwaite/Courtesy of Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles
Untitled (Garvey Day Parade — Harlem), 1967.CreditKwame Brathwaite/Courtesy of Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles


Untitled (Original African Jazz Arts Society and Studios members, left to right: Robert Gumbs, Frank Adu, Elombe Brath, Kwame Brathwaite, Ernest Baxter and Chris Hall), 1965.CreditKwame Brathwaite/Courtesy of Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles
Untitled (Grandassa Models, Merton Simpson Gallery), 1966.CreditKwame Brathwaite/Courtesy of Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles

Looking at Mr. Brathwaite’s photographs today feels like thumbing through a scrapbook of ads from the “Mad Men” era — except that everyone in them is black. To some extent, black power’s effectiveness as a political slogan owes a debt to how Mr. Brathwaite showcased his subjects. In 1962, when AJASS organized its first fashion show, Naturally ’62, in the basement of a Harlem nightclub, “people showed up, en masse,” Ms. Ford, the historian and author, told me, “but largely because they were skeptical. Because they wanted to see how it was going to go: What are these women going to look like?

Even some black nationalists among them didn’t wholeheartedly support AJASS’s efforts, particularly the Naturally fashion shows. “There were black men at the time, who could believe the teachings of Marcus Garvey, but still preferred blackness to show up in the form of straight hair on a black woman,” Mr. Ford said. “Then there would have been other men in that community who would have said, ‘These are the most beautiful women walking.’”

AJASS leveraged its relationships with jazz greats and black nationalists Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach to get more attention for the group’s work with the Grandassas. “It’s a big part of how the ‘Black is Beautiful’ message got out to the public,” Philip Martin, the gallery’s owner, said. “It became a household phrase before people even knew where it originated.”

The Naturally show became so popular it went on the road, traveling to the Midwest to affirm a “black is beautiful’ message that was barely evident there. The Grandassas appeared on jazz album covers and booked ad campaigns for African and Caribbean magazines.

In her book “The Global Beauty Industry: Colorism, Racism, and the National Body,” which examines beauty through the lens of gender and race, Meeta Rani Jha saw the Black Is Beautiful movement as a watershed moment. “If femininity is defined by the absence of blackness,” she wrote, “then the role the Black Is Beautiful movement played is one of the most significant anti-racist challenges to the dominant white beauty, destabilizing its cultural power.”

And Kwame Brathwaite helped start it. He and his brother understood back then, years before hair and beauty became strongly associated with black politics, that people, sometimes even black people themselves, were blind to how black is beautiful.

Mr. Brathwaite encouraged these messages for more than fifty years. They have even more potency today.

“It’s really, really, really important to lift up actual black beauty, black images, dark-skinned people,” said Jesse Williams, the actor, who curated the show along with Mr. Brathwaite’s son. “It’s still very, veryrare to see them in that light.”

Untitled (Sikolo Brathwaite with Headpiece designed by Carolee Prince), 1968.CreditKwame Brathwaite/Courtesy of Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles
Untitled (Naturally ’68 photo shoot in the Apollo Theater featuring Grandassa models and AJASS founding members Frank Adu, Elombe Brath and Ernest Baxter), 1968CreditKwame Brathwaite/Courtesy of Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles
Untitled (Naturally ’68 photo shoot in the Apollo Theater featuring Grandassa models and AJASS founding members Frank Adu, Elombe Brath and Ernest Baxter), 1968CreditKwame Brathwaite/Courtesy of Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles


Untitled (Nomsa Brath with earrings designed by Carolee Prince), 1964.CreditKwame Brathwaite/Courtesy of Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles
Untitled (Pat on Stage at Apollo Theater), 1968 Credit Kwame Brathwaite/Courtesy of Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles
ntitled (Riis Beach with Jimmy, Kwame and Elombe), 1963.CreditKwame Brathwaite/Courtesy of Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles


Untitled (Black is Beautiful Poster from 1971), 1971.CreditKwame Brathwaite/Courtesy of Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles


Untitled (Kwame Brathwaite self-portrait at AJASS Studios), 1964.CreditKwame Brathwaite/Courtesy of Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles

Source: The New York Times


10 Tips For Photographing Darker Skin Tones

No, you’re not crazy: photographing darker skin tones, like mine, is harder than photographing lighter ones. Before anyone goes and reports me for reverse racism, which isn’t a thing, lets talk about this in purely technical terms.

From the 1950s well into the 1980s, Kodak, the standard in film processing, provided photo labs with “Shirley cards,” photos meant to be used to calibrate skin tones and light levels for photo printing.

There were many “Shirleys” over the decades (the name came from the original model)—but as you might assume, they were all fair-skinned Caucasian women. So unless you processed your own images, they were developed to best complement light skin—no matter the skin tones or hues in your photos. Further, the dynamic range of Kodak film was biased toward lighter skin.

Kodak “Shirley cards.”

This created a situation in which photos of people with darker skin, especially photos with both lighter and darker skin tones in them, were very difficult to expose properly. In an NPR interview, photographer Syreeta McFadden explained, “A lot of [the design of film and motion technology] was conceived with the idea of the best representation of white people.

And I don’t mean to say that it was a deliberate and exclusionary practice, but [it was] much more of a willful obliviousness, if you will. So color film in its early stages pretty much developed around trying to measure the image against white skin.”

Thankfully, that is less of an issue now. Technology has gotten better (although there have been some problems along the way). Color film and digital color sensors don’t butcher darker skin tones anymore (hooray!), but we aren’t totally out of the woods yet. If, like me, you love to use older film presets or if you just want to photograph a range of subjects, you need to be cognizant of the default toward lighter skin and how to correct it.

With that in mind, a question remains: What is the best way to photograph darker skin tones? Like a softbox or a white wall, lighter skin picks up and reflects light rather easily. This helps photographers better capture it with low levels of flash or in low-wattage light. Darker skin, however, isn’t as reflective, so how you light your subjects and choose backgrounds must change, to consciously and successfully light people with darker skin.


1. For a photo including people with different skin tones, place your primary light source closer to the subject with darker skin. Note that if you do this, you may have to burn a little in post to make sure the subjects with lighter skin aren’t too bright.

This isn’t to say that you should blow out their skin or use only one light source. If you are shooting outdoors, bring in a reflector or have your darker-skinned subject interact in closer proximity to the light source.


2. Be conscious of undertones. Darker skin has undertones, just like lighter ones do. As you choose environments for portraiture, look for complementary colors that work well with the undertones for a soothing portrait, or contrasting or clashing ones for a more provocative look.

For example: I leaned into Jihaari’s skin’s orange undertones by placing him in compositional opposition to a sign with similar colors (left photo). And you can see how the subtle inclusion of red in the setting of the photo on the right goes smoothly with Kelechi’s undertones.

3. Keep lighting off the walls for a more cinematic feel—you want to create depth with your imagery. Using varying stages of light allows you to have a more dynamic frame.

Use a hair light. Don’t rob your subjects of the complexity and detail in their hair by not lighting it properly. This makes sense for everyone whose hair is dark. Make sure your have light that appropriately frames your subject’s hair.

4. Use a hair light. Don’t rob your subjects of the complexity and detail in their hair by not lighting it properly. This makes sense for everyone whose hair is dark. Make sure your have light that appropriately frames your subject’s hair.

5. Embrace the beauty of a well-lit silhouette and how it drapes light around darker skin features.

This image (below) is a favorite of mine. In low light, I will often opt for a silhouette, using the strongest light to kiss the edges of someone’s visage. It gives an effect of mystery and grandeur.


6. Employ the Highlights slider in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC or Curves adjustments in Photoshop CC to create soft contrast across darker skin. Even light looks magical on darker skin tones; it provides tonality and detail.

7. Harsh light is more forgiving, yes, but reflective light is your best friend. Use that to your advantage. Bouncing light or using diffusers reveals the complexity of facial features.

8. Resist the urge to lighten someone up…. I’ll say it again for the folks in the back: Properly lighting dark skin is not the same as dodging dark skin in Photoshop.

9. If you have multiple skin tones, set the median and use Photoshop’s Dodge tool and Burn tool to help you out. This is something you want to employ only if you have just one light source—for instance, if you’re shooting outdoors and have no way to soften the light. If this is the case, shoot each subject properly exposed so you have a digital example of what their skin tone is like, and then use Photoshop to closely achieve that.

10. With skin tones in general, pay attention to the background you’re using. Don’t tuck darker-skinned subjects against dark backgrounds unless you’re going to light them separately.



As we slowly march to a more racially equitable future, it’s imperative that we know how to light various skin tones properly to give them the visibility they deserve. Study the work of artists who do a great job lighting various skin tones and where the light they use is coming from. That’s what helped me on my journey to being a better artist.


By Aundre Larrow

Photographs by Aundre Larrow. Visit his portfolio site to see more of his work


TONL Creates Stock Photos That Reflect Global Diversity

As someone who regularly looks for stock photos to use for different articles, I know all too well that quality images that reflect the diversity of Black experience.

Enter TONL, a stock photography company that showcases the many ethnic backgrounds of every day people.

We caught up with co-founder, Karen Okonkwo to find out more about the business. This is what she had to say:

TONL founders: Karen Okonkwo and Joshua Kissi
SB: What inspired the creation of TONL?

KO: TONL was initially inspired by my realization that there was a lack of culturally diverse images online when I was running a separate online business and I needed images.

I couldn’t find images of anyone outside of the white race.

SB: How did you and your co-founder connect for this project?

KO: I was well aware of Joshua’s talents through his girlfriend and my friend, Mekdes Mersha. I approached her about the idea and asked her if I should connect with Josh about the idea.
She endorsed it and so I reached out to Joshua and that is how we started the initial dialogue on the business.
stock images
Joshua and Mekdes

SB: Why is representation important?

KO: Representation matters because people need to see themselves in order to feel like they are welcomed and that they belong.
When one race is pushed in media, it doesn’t send the message of inclusion and subconsciously makes other races feel inferior.

SB: What factors do you feel will make TONL a successful stock photo company?

KO: TONL is of the times. We position ourselves in front of current waves so we are appealing to the general public and our target audience.

We achieve this through our more modern looking images, our voice on social media and the personal appearances we make to deeply connect with the consumer.

SB:Where do you see the business in 5 years

KO: In 5 years I see TONL as the premiere, diverse stock photography business. We will be the go-to for all people and businesses looking to showcase more diversity in their media

SB: What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?

KO: Know your ‘why’ and make sure it’s strong. It will get you through the inevitable low points of building a business. Your why will keep you results-focused rather than process-oriented.

When you’re process-oriented, you care about all the little steps along the way that it often discourages you. Start each day with the end goal in mind.

Find more TONL images on their website.
-Tony Oluwatoyin Lawson aka @thebusyafrican