Celebrating the New Black Vanguard of Fashion Photographers

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Ruth Ossai, London, 2017© Ruth Ossai. From The New Black Vanguard (Aperture, 2019)

“I wanted to make a book about this generation of global photographers who are black and who bring their blackness to photography in a myriad of ways,” says Antwaun Sargent of his essential upcoming book The New Black Vanguard

“There is no question that representation is central to power. The real struggle is over the power to control images,” Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, said in 1994. This quote is the epigraph to upcoming book The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion, which celebrates the work of 15 contemporary black fashion photographers, including Campbell Addy, Nadine Ijewere, Daniel ObasiRuth OssaiStephen Tayo and AnOther Magazine contributor Tyler Mitchell.

“The idea really is a few years in the making,” says the book’s author, Antwaun Sargent, an art critic and a writer who has contributed to the New York Times and the New Yorker, among others. “I’ve been watching these photographers – both from up close and from afar – reimagine our notions of what a photograph can be in the space of art and fashion.” he tells AnOther. “Once I was offered the opportunity, I knew instantly that I wanted to make a book about this generation of global photographers who are black and who bring their blackness to photography in a myriad of ways. They are artists who are challenging our conceptions of race and gender, beauty and being.”

The New Black Vanguard opens with an essay by Sargent that traces the history of black photography from its advent in the 1840s to the present day. “For so long the black body and the black subject have been delivered and disseminated through a white gaze,” he writes. “The construction of negative stereotypes and the invention of racist caricature prop up Western society through images. All of this is being re-examined by these photographers. And many of them are just creating the images that they want to see, which are often inspired by their communities.” The book, Sargent stresses, doesn’t offer a monolithic perspective on the black body and the black subject, but rather diverse representations of blackness from all over the world. 

“The book features actual dialogues between these young photographers and older artists,” says Sargent. “Tyler Mitchell and Deborah Willis, for example, are in dialogue about Mitchell’s photo practice and how it developed while he was at NYU. Shaniqwa Jarvis and Renell Medrano talk about what it means to be a black female photographer.” That half of the artists in The New Black Vanguard are women is both refreshing and necessary. Only a small fraction of photographers who work on high-profile shoots, like magazine covers, are women – and of these, an even smaller fraction are women of colour.

The New Black Vanguard, which will be published by Aperture in October, is also the starting point for the photography foundation’s upcoming exhibition of the same name. As the book only includes work by 15 photographers, Sargent wanted to create a space where more black voices could be heard. Rhea Dillon, for example, will be screening her tender but powerful films at Aperture Gallery in New York next month. “I want to make sure that these artists are being recognised as their careers are taking off and that their contribution to photography is noticed while they are alive,” Sargent says. “Our understanding of photography is transforming thanks to these artists.”

Returning to The New Black Vanguard’s epigraph, visibility is not to be underestimated; it plays a necessary role in overthrowing the white supremacist structures that uphold Western society. “If we see someone do something in their truth, it might just encourage the rest of us to do the same,” Sargent says. “These photographs are testament to Thelma Golden’s notion that representation is absolutely central to power.”

The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion by Antwaun Sargent is published by Aperture on October 15, 2019. 

The exhibition of the same name is at Aperture Gallery, New York, from October 24, 2019 – January 18, 2020.