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Harlem Views/Diasporan Visions: The New Harlem Renaissance Photographers--An Interview with Curator Mary Yearwood
The Schomburg Center presents the inaugural exhibition of the New Harlem Photographers, a group of 25 artists who share intimate views of daily life, festivals, and celebrations, as well arts, culture, and social activism in and around Harlem. NYPL News talked to Mary Yearwood, Curator of Photographs and Prints at the Schomburg Center, to learn more about the photographers and their work.
Who are the New Harlem Renaissance Photographers?
New Harlem Renaissance Photographers (NHRP) is a collective of New York, primarily Harlem-based, photographers of African descent, which was formed in 2010. The impetus for the formation of this group was New York State Senator Bill Perkins of the 30th District who, after attending the funeral of a longtime Harlem photographer, realized that there were many such photographers of African descent whose work had never received exposure, had rarely been exhibited, or deserved greater visibility. His office put out a call to local photographers, and 25 individuals—19 men and 6 women—responded. The NHRP collective consists of veteran photojournalists, documentarians, fine art pracitioners, and emerging artists.
How does their work differ from Harlem Renaissance artists such as James Van Der Zee?
Van Der Zee was principally a studio photographer, and very few of the members of this group operate studios in any form. Like Van Der Zee, James Latimer Allen, and Morgan and Marvin Smith, for example, and like photographers of African descent in general however, this work portrays peoples of African descent in a positive light, in normal, human situations. Historically and continually, peoples of African descent are often portrayed negatively in the various media, and many mainstream photographers working in areas such as Harlem, have historically highlighted squalid conditions, social problems, or exoticism. The NHRP photographers show ongoing vibrant African descendant communities—in Harlem; in the outer boroughs and elsewhere in New York City; in the Americas; and in Africa—engaged in the positive acts of everyday living; cultural continuity; social and political struggle; achievement; spiritual life; and secular celebration. The members of New Harlem Renaissance Photographers, like their predecessors, also approach their subjects with a highly aesthetic and creative eye.
What subjects did you focus on in Harlem Views/Diasporan Visions?
The exhibition theme was chosen by the NHRP for its inaugural show once the photographers realized the diversity of material they had collectively captured. It was then necessary to ensure that the work selected articulated the main theme as comprehensively as possible. Therefore, the images my co-curator, Deborah Willis of New York University, and I selected focus on Harlem of a half century ago; current events; ongoing social and political activism; change and transformation; monuments and memorials; arts and entertainment; and immigrant Diasporan communities.
Will these photographs be added to the permanent collections of the Schomburg Center?
I certainly hope so, because this is a strong body of work, and the subject matter would help to update the collection while including work by photographers not presently represented. Unfortunately, our ability to acquire any of this work is hampered by limited acquisition funds. In general, there has been a reduction in Library budgets due to the fiscal crisis. It would be great if a few donors, particularly photography collectors, would consider stepping forward to enable us to continue to build and develop the photography collection, especially by including work by these photographers.
What do you like best about working at the Library?
I have been very fortunate to get paid for doing something that I love. Working at the Library has also afforded me the opportunity to devote my career to helping to preserve some of the written—and since 1993, visual documentation—of the history and culture of peoples of African descent as well as the work of photographers of African descent.