The mere mention of Harlem has always evoked images of Black pride and cultural vitality that for decades have captured the attention of artists and writers and, particularly, photographers. Without question, the landscape of Harlem today has been altered: Gentrification has a firm grip on the cultural and political center. Yet the recently mounted exhibit titled “Harlem Views/Diasporan Visions: The New Harlem Renaissance Photographers” on view at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture through June 30, 2011, is sure to kindle emotions about Harlem’s past, as well as its present state. It may also raise concerns about the neighborhood’s future.
The NHRP presentation of more than 100 images is the first major photographic exhibit at the Schomburg in more than 11 years. Curated by Howard Dodson, Mary F. Yearwood and Deborah Willis, the show was a year in the making. It is also the debut exhibition of the New Harlem Renaissance Photographers, a collective of photographers of African-American and African descent –— some longtime Harlem residents — that is committed to producing fine contemporary imagery while paying tribute to pioneering predecessors. Photographer Shawn W. Walker, who has been taking pictures in Harlem since the 1960s, says, “Harlem is now changing. It’s no longer just a Black community. And the mission of this show is to capture what Harlem was. And drawing from the spirit and energy of Harlem, we hope people will see the breadth and scope of Harlem.”
Many of the images on display capture modern-day Harlem. Some reflect upon Harlem as early as 1960. In all, the photographs represent the uplifting spirit of the community, focusing on the people and places that serve as Harlem’s roots and strengths. There are photographs of legendary performers, such as Abbey Lincoln and Nancy Wilson and the Dance Theatre of Harlem; a series of images of storefront churches; glimpses of New York City’s African community, courtesy of Isseu Diouf; and there are pictures of notable political figures, stirring protest rallies and memorable funeral held at the Apollo that are a significant part of Harlem’s history.
“When visitors come to the exhibit, I’d like them to understand the sense of importance to document history,” says photographer Azim Nadir Thomas, a NHRP member. “History is our pictures, it’s the stories the images tell.” NHRP member E. Lee White says, “I hope people see the vast cultural aspects of Black people that are represented and the various celebrations that occur in the city.”
Beverly Terry, also a member of the collective, says she hopes visitors will “walk away with some knowledge of Black history and a viewpoint that is new and positive.” The members of NHRP consider themselves cultural anthropologists, adds Walker. Photo-grapher Howard T. Cash comments on his being a part of the exhibit, saying, “I simply hope people get a much better and clearer view of themselves.”