“Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite,” Skirball Cultural Center


THREE PHOTOGRAPHY EXHIBITIONS on view at Los Angeles institutions feature the work of Gordon Parks, Kwame Brathwaite, and photographers who have trained their lenses on the legends of hip hop.

The Getty Center is presenting Parks’s 1961 images of Flávio da Silva, a young Brazilian boy he photographed on assignment for Life magazine. Nearby, Brathwaite’s images at the Skirball Cultural Center celebrate the Black is Beautiful movement and bring to life the culture and style of Harlem in the 1950s and 60s. Finally, the Annenberg Space for Photography is delving into the visual history of hip-hop through the work of 60 photographers including Barron Claiborne, Jamel Shabazz, Janette Beckman, and Jorge Peniche, whose images date from the 1980s to the present.

These landmark exhibitions explore disparate, yet equally compelling subjects. A common thread connects the presentations: a focus on work that resonates due to the singular vision and distinct authorship of the artists making the images.

Capturing Biggie Smalls wearing a gold crown against a red backdrop, Claiborne had one thing in mind. “This was simply about photographing Biggie as the King of New York,” he has said. “He is depicted as an almost saint-like figure. This shot is the shot and it’s iconic. I still have the crown, too.” Claiborne photographed Smalls on March 6, 1997. The rapper was killed March 9.

“This was simply about photographing Biggie as the King of New York. He is depicted as an almost saint-like figure. This shot is the shot and it’s iconic. I still have the crown, too.” — Barron Claiborne

BARRON CLAIBORNE, “Biggie Smalls: King of New York,” 1997 (contact sheets). | © Barron Claiborne

Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop @ The Annenberg Space for Photography, Los Angeles | April 26-Aug. 25, 2019

“Contact High” charts the rise of hip-hop, a cultural phenomenon with global reach. A book by Vikki Tobak inspired the show. She serves as the exhibition’s curator with Fab 5 Freddy providing creative direction. More than 140 images by 60 photographers are on view. Dating back to the 1980s, the photographs capture the power and personality of hip-hop’s larger-than-life subjects. The exhibition draws from the photographer’s archives offering a look at their contact sheets, a chance to see all the images from photo shoots rather than the few selected for publication and promotion. Iconic, unvarnished, and artful, the photographs feature figures such as Biggie Smalls (1972-1997), Salt-N-Pepa, DJ Quick, Queen Latifah, Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Nipsey Hussle (1985-2019). Closing soon, the exhibition was originally scheduled to conclude Aug. 18. It has been extended and remains on view through this weekend.


From left, GORDON PARKS, “Flávio da Silva, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,” 1961 (gelatin silver print). | The J. Paul Getty Museum. Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council. © The Gordon Parks Foundation; GORDON PARKS, Detail of “Catacumba Favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,” 1961 negative, printed later (gelatin silver print). | The J. Paul Getty Museum. Purchased with funds provided by the Photographs Council. © The Gordon Parks Foundation

“Gordon Parks: The Flávio Story,” J. Paul Getty Musuem, Getty Center, Los Angeles | July 9–Nov. 10, 2019

In the early 1960s, Gordon Parks (1912-2006) was sent on assignment for Life magazine to document poverty in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He encountered 12-year-old Flávio da Silva and his family living in a favela called Catacumba and for several weeks focused on observing their daily lives and experiences. Parks published “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty” in June 1961, a compelling 12-page profile in which Flávio, the sickly industrious young boy, stood out. While the Brazilian press objected to the negative portrayal, the photo essay compelled thousands of American readers to send letters and donations to Life to help support the family. Parks brought Flavio to Denver, Colorado, where the head of a children’s asthma research institute offered him free treatment.

More than 100 photographs are displayed in the Getty exhibition, along with issues of Life featuring Flavio’s story, ephemera related to his stay in Denver, and correspondence and records from archives held by Life and the Parks foundation. Co-organized by co-organized by the Getty and the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto with Instituto Moreira Salles in Brazil and The Gordon Parks Foundation, the exhibition has previously been shown in Toronto and Rio de Janeiro.

“The Flávio Story” is one of countless bodies of work for which Parks is known. The first African American staff photographer and writer at Life, he left a wealth of work and through his foundation exhibitions of his photographs are regularly on view at museums across the country and internationally. “Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work 1940-1950” opens at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, on Sept. 14.

KWAME BRATHWAITE, “Grandassa Model on car during Marcus Garvey Day celebration, Harlem,” circa 1968. | Courtesy the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles

“Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite,” Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles | April 11-Sept. 1, 2019

Half a century ago, Kwame Brathwaite photographed studio portraits of models with perfectly rounded afros and captured street shots of models at Marcus Garvey Day Parades in Harlem. Brathwaite made it his business to photograph black people. His photographs of black women and men with natural hair, full lips, and a range of skin tones and body shapes, illustrated the Black is Beautiful movement. To further his cause, the Harlem photographer established two organizations with his brother—a group called Grandassa Models and African Jazz-Art Society and Studios, a collective of multidisciplinary artists. More than 40 of his striking images are presented in “Black is Beautiful.” This is the first major exhibition dedicated to the work of Brathwaite, 81, whose practice “combined his political vision with the medium of photography to effect social change.” Organized by the Aperture Foundation in collaboration with the photographer, the show closes soon in Los Angeles. Later this year, the exhibition is traveling to the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, and is also headed to the Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, S.C., and The New-York Historical Society in New York City, where Brathwaite continues to live. CT


TOP IMAGE: Installation view of “Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite,” Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angelesm April 11–Sept. 1, 2019. | Courtesy Skirball Cultural Center


FIND MORE about the exhibition “Gordon Parks: The Flávio Story” and Flávio da Silva, now 70, at Hyperallergic


With contributions by Tanisha C. Ford and Deborah Willis, “Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful” documents the exhibition. “Gordon Parks: The New Tide: Early Work 1940–1950” was published to accompany the exhibition of the same name and featuring text by Maurice Berger, Philip Brookman, Richard Powell, Deborah Willis, and Sarah Lewis, among others. “Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop” inspired the exhibition. Authored by Vikki Tobak, the 288-page volume includes a forword by Questlove, a several writings by Rhea L. Combs and RZA, among others.


Video by Annenberg Space for Photography


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