Black and white portrait of a Mother with braided hair holding a young baby
Portrait of a Mother with braided hair holding a young baby
By Austin Hansen

© The Estate of Austin Hansen

“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.

Additional Resources

Hansen

Learn more about Austin Hansen's archival collections housed at the Schomburg Center:

Austin Hansen Photograph Collection available in NYPL Digital Collections

Oral History Interview of Austin Hansen  available in the Moving Image & Recorded Sound Division

Austin Hansen Papers available in the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division

Past Public Programs

Spring Exhibition Opening: Been Seen

Thursday, March 31, 2022 |  5:00 PM Exhibition Opening | 6:30 PM Photography Program 

Join us for the opening of our latest exhibition Been Seen curated by Novella Ford, Associate Director of Public Programs and Exhibitions. This exhibition highlights the work of Harlem-based photographer Austin Hansen (1910-1996) and the experience of Black photographers illuminating the fullness of Black life, constructing a catalog of survival that includes joy, pageantry, and leisure alongside struggles for justice, dignity, and equity. Been Seen places the work of Hansen in conversation with seven contemporary photographers: Dario Calmese, Cheriss May, Flo Ngala, Ricky Day, Gerald Peart, Mark Clennon and Lola Flash. 

During the opening there will be a reception and conversation with participating photographers to discuss their practices exploring identity, Black experiences, visual culture, and portraiture.

WATCH NOW

Been Seen: The Photography of Zora J Murff

Monday, February 7, 2022 | 6:30 PM | VIRTUAL

Zora J Murff is a former social worker who turned to photography over a decade ago. He joins us in the first of a series of conversations—Been Seen— about the gaze of Black photographers who explore and celebrate Black life. In his latest monograph, True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis), he addresses the act of remembering and the politics of self which Murff identifies as “the duality of Black patriotism and the challenges of finding belonging in places not made for me—of creating an affirmation in a moment of crisis as I learn to remake myself in my own image.” Zora will be in conversation with Bill Gaskins, Founding Director of the Photography + Media & Society MFA at MICA and author of the groundbreaking monograph, Good & Bad Hair: Photographs by Bill Gaskins.

WATCH NOW

Photoville Presentation: Picturing Community: Austin Hansen's Photographs of Harlem

Saturday, September 18, 2021 | 7:00 PM | Brooklyn Bridge Park - Pier 1 - Harborview Lawn

Join us at Photoville's opening day festival's 10 UNDER 10 event with the Schomburg Center’s curator of the Photographs and Prints Division, Dr. Dalila Scruggs. She will deliver a featured presentation Picturing Community: Austin Hansen's Photographs of Harlem on the big screen at Brooklyn Bridge Park. The 10 UNDER 10 program will feature Photoville's longtime friends and partners, community-based photographic organizations, and stalwarts of the visual storytelling community.

Acknowledgements

CURATED BY Novella Ford, Associate Director, Public Programs and Exhibitions

EXHIBITION TEAM

Exhibition Coordinator:  Shante´ Cozier 

Exhibition & Graphic Designer:  HvADesign: Henk van Assen, IIsabella Natale

SPECIAL THANKS

Schomburg Center Director: Joy Bivins

Art Handlers: Aviram Cohen, Caleb Nussear, Todd Kelly

Photographs and Prints Division: Dalila Scruggs, Michael Mery

Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division: Maira Liriano, A.J. Muhammad

Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division: Cheryl Beredo, Barrye Brown

Digitization Coordinator: Kimberly Henderson

Public Programs Associate Producer: Khalilah Bates

Chief of Staff: KC Matthews

Schomburg’s Security and Facilities Staff

2021 Photoville Installation

Presented as part of Photoville Festival NYC 2021

Location: St. Nicholas Park in Harlem - 132nd Street and 139th Street at St. Nicholas Avenue

Been Seen, an outdoor banner exhibition, centers the gaze of Black photographers for whom the ordinary and the peculiarities of Black life occupy memory and is a source for exploration and celebration. The exhibition places in conversation the work of Harlem-based studio photographer Austin Hansen (1910-1996) with six contemporary photographers: Dario Calmese, Cheriss May, Flo Ngala, Ricky Day, Gerald Peart, and Mark Clennon. Their practices explore identity, Black experiences, visual culture, and portraiture. 

Been Seen Photoville Festival
Mid day light in a park with trees and a fence with banners with images going from left to right
Two brown banners with two black and white photos and one color photo hanging on a fence in a park with a man in the background
Brown banners with black and white and color photos hanging on a fence in a park.
Banner exhibition hanging on a fence in a park

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