“The [black Harlem] photographer did not come upon the scene only recently.”
Myrtle Evangeline Pollard, Harlem As Is (1937)
Harlem-based photojournalist, studio photographer, and documentarian, Austin Hansen (1910-1996), was the subject of Hansen’s Harlem, an important retrospective of his work held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in 1989. On exhibition were nearly 200 images from the 1940s to the 1980s, moving through intimate spaces and time, documenting special events and the private lives of ordinary people and celebrities for whom Harlem was home and a place to see and be seen.
Then head of the Schomburg Center’s Photograph and Prints division, photography historian Dr. Deborah Willis, opened her 1989 essay Austin Hansen: Harlem’s Photographer with this reference from Myrtle Evangeline Pollard. Pollard’s observation, in its simplicity, recognizes the authority of the Black photographer's gaze, without validation of any cultural touchstones percolating in the broader world. Behind the Black photographer’s gaze is a lifetime of interactions illuminating the fullness of Black life, constructing a catalog of survival that includes joy, pageantry, and leisure alongside struggles for justice, dignity, and equity.
For 47 years, Austin Hansen had a photo studio at West 135th Street that doubled as a gallery and exhibition space. Hansen began photographing in nightclubs, freelanced for the Amsterdam News, trained as a combat/war photographer in the Navy, and continued to document community life in Harlem until his death in 1996. He produced more than 500,000 portraits of African American families, clergy, political leaders, entertainers, writers, and community members. Following a donation from Hansen in 1986, the Schomburg Center became the repository for the Austin Hansen Collection that includes correspondence, original photographs, news clippings, programs for special events held at many historic Harlem churches, and other social events in Harlem and elsewhere. Dr. Howard Dodson, then director of the Schomburg Center, wrote in the retrospective’s exhibition catalog: Here is a man who had a keen sense of the historical development of his people in the Harlem community—one who documented events and personalities as much through memory as through his camera.
Images by Black photographers continue to file minority reports for the interior and public life of Black existence. Been Seen places the work of Austin Hansen in conversation with seven contemporary photographers: Dario Calmese, Cheriss May, Flo Ngala, Ricky Day, Gerald Peart, Mark Clennon, and Lola Flash. Their practices explore identity, Black experiences, visual culture, and portraiture.
Been Seen welcomes audiences to look, compare, consider, and see.