London

Raphael Albert, Miss Caribbean Queen with fellow contestants, ca. 1970s, gelatin silver print, 30 × 30".

Raphael Albert, Miss Caribbean Queen with fellow contestants, ca. 1970s, gelatin silver print, 30 × 30".

Raphael Albert

Autograph

Raphael Albert, Miss Caribbean Queen with fellow contestants, ca. 1970s, gelatin silver print, 30 × 30".

The bikini is in decline, announced the British press in the summer of 2016. This factoid was supposedly linked to the rise of a new standard of female beauty set by the leotard-sporting American Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles. But the image of a fit, strong black female body as a standard of beauty is nothing new, as “Raphael Albert: Miss Black & Beautiful,” curated by Renée Mussai, reminded me. Consider Albert’s 1981 portrait Miss Grenada Theresa Hopkins #1, London, one of the few color photographs in the show. It depicts the model with her lips painted red, dressed in a one-piece bathing suit, and posing against a white screen hung against an orange wall: a strong woman with a strong attitude.

Albert, originally from Grenada, immigrated to London in 1953 and started learning photography at Ealing Technical College while working part-time at a cake factory. From there, he quickly moved into the world of freelance work for black British newspapers such as West Indian World, where his assignments included beauty contests. A few years later, he started building his own enterprise dedicated to pageants and model promotion, which he documented via photography. As we could read in the introduction to the show, in 1970 he established the Miss Black & Beautiful contest, followed by Miss West Indies in Great Britain, Miss Teenager of the West Indies in Great Britain, and Miss Grenada. He also founded a production company, Albert Promotions; his own magazine, Charisma, in 1984; and the associated Albert’s Girl Academy of Modelling. Many of his photographs depict the queens of the pageants in front of an audience—for instance Miss Caribbean Queen with fellow contestants, ca. 1970s—or backstage celebrating their victories. Other photographs show junior models just starting out, posing for their portfolios in Albert’s studio on Blythe Road in West London. We could imagine the atmosphere of this place while looking at an unnamed Model with a Head Wrap, Blythe Road, London, ca. 1970s.

Archival materials gathered in two display cases—and the genuine smiles of the photographed subjects—showed that the pageants were more than just a competition. “In a world where most problems are caused by misunderstandings and lack of communication,” according to one of the texts, possibly intended for the pages of Charisma, “we hope that through teaching our contestants (for the short space of time they are with us) the gentle art of courtesy, we can contribute towards making them more responsible and mature adults.” A sense of solidarity, communal responsibility, and pride emanated from these documents and images. Although some of these works were made as recently as the ’90s, the show exuded a nostalgia that was accentuated by the patterned vintage wallpaper in yellow and brown on which the photos were hung. “Raphael Albert: Miss Black & Beautiful” celebrated an important face of beauty not often associated with pageants. In his frontal, uncompromising portraits, Albert captured a sense of camaraderie and joy often missing from contemporary depictions of women by the beauty industry.

Sylwia Serafinowicz