PRINT April 1968



California photographers have discovered the Negro. In the Bay Area, it has become the fashion for photographers to drive in to town in their white Mustangs from the white suburbs to spend a couple of weekends walking up and down Fill more Street, and their Serious Social Statements, photographs of genuine, real live Negroes—a couple talking on a street corner, a group of women in their best hats congregating at a store front church, or children playing games on the sidewalk—have been shown recently in too frequent exhibits that mirror the condescension of both photographer and gallery director. These photographers know nothing of the lives of the people they have photographed. Most of them have little insight into people at all. They are simply tuning in to the current scene. They have certainly never talked with their subjects or visited in their homes, and, for all we learn from the photographs, the people do not exist except as they are momentarily framed in the photographer’s viewfinder as he presses the shutter. If the photographer accomplishes an image of a white hand entwined with a black one, lights flash, wheels whirl, and he wins the jackpot.

We can contrast these insipid photographs with the incisive empathy of Walker Evans. For his book, Many Are Called, Evans photographed people on subways, usually without their being aware of his camera. Yet we know the people well—their lives, their thoughts, their homes—because Evans understood people and pressed the shutter at just the right instant to make them tell us their story.

Conversely, in An American Place, Evans often showed us only houses and details of houses, yet we can imagine the people who lived there, because Evans knew, and knew how to tell us.

In the photographers’ lexicon, poverty has always been synonymous with reality, and within the past few years, Negroes have become more real than whites, and it seems inevitable that photographers have responded to the definition by invading the Negro ghettos to grasp that most Ultimate Reality of all, the poor Negro. We might refer to these photographers as Tourists in Negroland, for their photographs are no more penetrating than the tourist color slides of the Dôme, the Eiffel Tower, and Sacré Coeur.

Two exhibits and a recently published book lie outside the usual shallow attempts at social significance: Joanne Leonard’s “Our Town” (De Young Museum); Wayne Miller’s “Way of Life of the Northern Negro” (Focus Gallery); and Langston Hughes and Roy De Carava’s Sweet Flypaper of Life (Hill and Wang, New York, reissue in 1967 of book originally published in 1955). And of the three, only one is totally successful.

Miss Leonard is very young. Her husband is a sculptor, and because he needs space to work, they live in a cheap-rent, partially industrial, primarily Negro area of West Oakland. Miss Leonard has photographed her neighborhood. Although her chances of having an exhibit were certainly increased by her photographing the currently stylish subject, her prints are an unpretentious family album, made with sympathy, humor, and often a good eye. One feels that she would have had the same curiosity about any place she lived. Many of her photographs—a drum corps, a triptych of children playing on a barred window, a shiny new car in front of a shack—are particularly well seen. Miss Leonard’s photographs have no bristling social message. They are simply a young woman’s relaxed exploration of the world around her.

Wayne Miller’s photographs are a sharp contrast to Miss Leonard’s gentle snapshots. Miller is a sophisticated and professional photojournalist, and his photographs were made between 1946 and 1948 on a Guggenheim Fellowship. They have not been shown before in this area. They have not yet been shown adequately. Miller seems to have sent his prints to the gallery with no indication of their relationship to each other, and the random placement weakens them and emphasizes their age. The way of life of the northern Negro has changed in 20 years. The way of life of almost every segment of society in the United States has changed in 20 years. And Miller’s prints could be an important record of change. Without proper editing, and Miller himself edits tightly (he collaborated with Edward Steichen in editing The Family of Man in the early ’50s, and his book, The World is Young, published in 1958, is a coherent story of the life of his own family), the photographs are not even of historical interest.

The Sweet Flypaper of Life, with text by Langston Hughes and photographs by Roy De Carava, both Negro, was first published in 1955, and was reissued in 1967, after Hughes’s death. Flypaper is the story of Sister Mary Bradley. When she receives a telegram from St. Peter telling her to come home, she pretends that she can’t find her glasses to, sign the receipt—although she has been perfectly able to read the message—and tells the messenger to get right back on his bicycle to explain to the Lord. Sister Mary then tells us, and De Carava shows us, the reason she isn’t ready to go yet. She is curious to find out how the integration that the Supreme Court has decreed is going to work out on earth, but she mentions it only in passing. Abstract concepts are not her main concern. She is worried about what will happen to her children—and particularly her grandchildren—if she isn’t around to take care of them. Through the interweaving of Hughes’s poetic descriptions of her family and De Carava’s splendid photographs of them, we see what life was like in Harlem in the mid-’50s, and what family relationships are like in all times and in all cultures. Flypaper is a beautiful book, unashamedly sentimental, and it was produced by two men who were proud of their race and of their essential humanity. In these unhappy days, when human beings are more and more considered symbols or stereotypes, or, worse, nasty patterns of little punches on an IBM card, and are finally disposed of in “body counts,” the reissue of Flypaper is particularly welcome.

Margery Mann