THE BLACK FEMALE BODY: A Photographic History

Deborah Willis, Editor, Carla Williams, Contribution by . Temple Univ. $60 (240p) ISBN 1-56639-928-9

"Why the black female body?" rhetorically ask the authors at the opening of this coffee-table history of African-American women in photographs. Willis, a MacArthur Fellow and professor of photography at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, and writer Williams ( answer the question convincingly. They find that, until the 1940s, most photographic images of black women fall into three categories: the naked "Jezebel," the "neutered" "mammy" or the "noble savage" and her more modern descendents. They set out to present them critically and unflinchingly, along with the recent trope-destroying photographic work of artists like Adrian Piper. Among the book's 200 clearly reproduced duo-tones, most of them nudes, Willis and Williams find that the 19th-century European photos of black women most often had colonialism, scientific evolution or sexuality as their subtext. They move from anonymous studies and exotic travel shots to posed work by the likes of Atget, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Gertrude Käsebier, Walker Evans, Nadar and Edward Weston. Contemporary artists like Gordon Parks and Catherine Opie are also here. The book's sociological bent can be a little clinical for discussions of art, and the book is short on presentation and analysis of advertising and other recent non-art. But the point here is more the unmasking of stereotypes, which the book does very well, than the presentation of some compelling photographs, with which it does an adequate job. (Feb.)

Forecast:Published to coincide with Black History Month, this book should sell well from high-brow gift tables; its scholarship is very real, if downplayed. has bundled if with Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers (Merrell), which has done very well since its publication a year ago.

Reviewed on: 02/04/2002
Release date: 02/01/2002
Genre: Nonfiction
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