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Blacks Show Blacks in Their Own Image


They were mostly in their 30s and 40s, old enough to have developed a perspective on life but still young enough to be passionate about it, to dream a different world.

They, more than 50 black photographers who worked on documenting black America, milled about in an upstairs exhibition hall at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington one afternoon last week, brought together by the opening of "Songs of My People," an exhibition of the fruits of that documentary effort.

Having flown or driven in from as far away as San Jose or as nearby as Upper Marlboro, they greeted each addition to their swelling ranks with collegial admiration and, sometimes, with the uninhibited enthusiasm of those who have shared some inner passage, some transcendent ordeal.

They were proud, and it showed. On the walls that surrounded them, in a gallery in the capital of the world, were their photographs, images from the lives of a people too long slandered or, worse, ignored by photography's capturing eye.

"Songs of My People," an exhibition of 150 photographs of black Americans, opened at the Corcoran yesterday. The show, which runs there until May 3 before embarking on a three-year tour of more than 25 cities, was organized by the photographers themselves.

Dudley M. Brooks, a Washington Post photographer who grew up a half mile from Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore, was one of the prime movers in putting the show together, laying the groundwork for the massive project while at a dinner gathering with a few other Washington-area lensmen.

As someone keenly familiar with the power that photography has in shaping public opinion -- how many of us still remember the image of an anguished woman kneeling before a Kent State student slain by the Ohio National Guard? -- Mr. Brooks said it was important to him that the image of the black community be more than that of shooting victims and impoverished mothers.

Too often, many of the photographers at the gallery said, the successes that help bind the black community together are overlooked: the school teacher who prods her students to reach higher; the Harlem Renaissance writer still productive at the age of 70, the husband who comforts his wife during the delivery of a child.

A mural-sized photograph of three woman doctors, the enormity of their accomplishments understated by their drab surgical garb, is the first image to greet visitors arriving at the exhibit. It is full of visual irony in that, given the tradition of negative images of black people in American photography, it is easy to mistake the women for hospital custodians, to assume that their mops and pails are just out of sight.

In another, the familiar anxiety with which a young boy anticipates a haircut is captured, Norman Rockwell-esque in its folksy barber shop character.

"The show is a celebration of victory, the victory of acknowledging a sensibility that until recently has been suppressed and hidden on the back shelves or projected through the eyes of others," said Jules Allen, a New York photographer whose work is represented in the show. "I think it is a celebration of things to come."

Mr. Brooks said he and his colleagues decided to organize the project after being embarrassed by the success of "I Dream A World," a compilation of photographs of important black women published in 1989 by Brian Lanker, a white photographer.

"' I Dream A World' came out, and black photographers went absolutely bonkers," said Mr. Brooks, a slight, thoughtful man. "We felt that it was an exceptional project, but that we should have been on it."

Mr. Brooks and his colleagues were impressed by the power and dignity projected in the images of the black women, and were determined to capture those same qualities displayed by ordinary black Americans in their everyday life. Mr. Brooks, one of three collaborators who wrote dedications in the book that accompanies the show, cited his family, saying, "Thank you for my values."

Some of the photographers should be particularly familiar to Baltimoreans. Mark Gail, a news photographer with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, got his break in photography at the Baltimore Afro-American, honing his skills in the newspaper's chaotic, closet-sized darkroom. Roland L. Freeman, a Washington free-lancer, documented Baltimore's so-called A-rabs, black fruit merchants who hawk their wares from horse drawn carts. And Mr. Brooks used hometown Baltimore as the setting of at least two of his works.

Blacks have been relatively scarce in photography, a profession that requires all who take it up to invest in expensive equipment and materials, but which rewards relatively few people with financial success.

One notable exception, Gordon Parks, blazed a trail for black photographers in the '50s and '60s by breaking in big with Life and Vogue magazines. But until the late 1970s, when urban newspapers belatedly scrambled to find photographers who would be comfortable following stories into black neighborhoods, there had been few others to record the black experience from a personal point of view.

With a single stroke, the exhibit appears likely to change that, to put America on notice that blacks are no longer willing to allow others exclusively to define the black community.

As a few of the last remaining photographers lingered in the gallery, scrawling autographs for each other on copies of their work, many of them said they feel they are trail-blazers for a next generation. It is up to them to show the way for young black photographers and, indeed, for all people who get part of their view of the world through photography, they said.

"A lot of kids are going to come through the exhibit and see an opportunity for a career that none of us ever had," said Mr. Allen, who is a professor of photography at Queensborough Community College in New York City. "The only person we had to look up to was Gordon Parks."

Martin Evans is a former Sun reporter.

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