Celebrating Black History Month: A Multi-Generational Story

by Adobe Photography Team

posted on 02-07-2020

If we know anything about the power of a photo, it is that it transcends beyond the frame. Its meaning seeps into the corners of daily life, touching everything in its proliferation. With such power comes the opportunity to amplify the beliefs that carry significant weight in our hearts, and live permanently in our minds. This February marks the 44th observance of Black History Month in the United States, Canada, and the UK. Historically, Black History Month celebrates inspirational African American figures from past and present, while shining a light on their cultural contributions to society.

To celebrate, we sought to understand how three iconic black photographers augment the messages that sit heavily in their hearts, through the power of their art. To say that their impact is great is a wild understatement. From a MacArthur Fellowship to an award-winning photo series to a Vogue photo spot, the accolades that these three photographers bring to the table are impressive, to say the least. But beyond that, they each highlight unique perspectives of black culture throughout the years, weaving their own stories into each shot.

Via this multi-generational lens, we attempt to capture the history of a rich culture, one that has endured insufferable amounts of pain, while growing stronger and more resilient everyday. It is our privilege to introduce Dr. Deborah Willis, Sheila Pree Bright, and Gunner Stahl, whose excellence shines from the beginnings of the civil rights movement to present day. Let’s dive in and hear about their dynamic, game-changing works, shall we?

The Art of Storytelling | Dr. Deborah Willis

While focusing on the history of visual storytelling within African American traditions and simultaneously infatuated with beauty, Dr. Deborah Willis has worked to ground the histories of the two concepts into her work. Growing up in her mother’s beauty shop in the 60’s, Deborah found herself surrounded by glamor, observed the ritual of self care, and listened to the way women would speak about their lives within the trusted walls of the beauty shop. “I used to sit on the floor and listen to women talk about their lives, their hopes, and their disappointments. I was a kid, but I understood that there was something central and important about that experience,” she shares. Typically perched with an issue of LIFE, Ebony, or JET, Deborah would self-pontificate the “lack of stories [about] women” and knew that she wanted to become a photographer to tell visual stories that she seldom saw or read about. She was about seven years old. From these early experiences sprung a natural direction for her work thereafter: the idea of women embracing their beauty, and communal storytelling that coincides.

While her intentions were always pure, being a woman in the arts proved to have its tribulations. When she attended the Philadelphia College of Art in 1972, there were only two black women in the photography program. She laments, “I was confronted by a male professor who informed me that I was ‘taking up space for a good man’ and went on to say that ‘all you’re going to do is get pregnant when you graduate’’, insinuating that she had no business wasting her time in his class. Deborah got pregnant after graduation, of course and then “thought about his words, and didn’t want to go back to Philadelphia…because she didn’t want to be seen.” Her professor’s comment lingered, and she thought, “How do you deny your own natural body based on a sexist, racist comment about how your body should reproduce and when it should reproduce?” Years later, her son Hank Willis Thomas wondered why she never printed the images in question, to which she replied “I don’t know.” Once she remembered, she created a piece titled “good man,” which led to the concepting of a print titled “I made space for a good man” during an artist residency at Brandywine. Dr. Willis used this personal experience to “interrogate acts of injustices and moments in popular culture to introduce new ways of discussing concepts that matter” through art that matters, and made a point to continually do so throughout her career. This story, along with several others outlined in her work, highlights the conflict that she sees women routinely grapple with–feeling societally-induced shame for being female, while also wanting to fully embrace the beauty of being female.

Multi-dimensional, thought-provoking, and category-bending, Deborah’s work transcends. From creating visual stories of activism to transforming everyday experiences, her work explores the complexities of life through race, beauty, and gender. The singular feeling that she hopes to evoke from her work is “hope.” A firm believer that we all have stories to share, Dr. Willis feels as both an artist and a scholar that “not only must we create, we [must also be] motivated to develop a more inclusive history of American photography, by researching and writing about photography that has been overlooked.”

Her legacy continues through her son Hank Willis Thomas, who is opening a show at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. While sharing her love for photography as a medium to highlight cultural injustices, Deborah also gave us insight into her already busy year. She revealed that she recently completed curation for an opening at the Maryland Institute College of Art: Migrations and Meanings in Art, which “foregrounds varied experiences on migration from concepts of dislocation, border crossings and storytelling. The artwork embraces and challenges various narratives on identity through migration practices and looks at the impact and reception both empowering and subjective often explored through gentrification, longing, and trauma – as well as drawing attention to race, class, gender, and religion.”

Along with curation, her passion for capturing powerful imagery remains, as she recently collaborated with Michelle Jones for the Mural Arts Project in Philadelphia on formerly incarcerated men and women. To top it off, she is in the process of creating a book on the Black Civil War Soldier, with the intention to raise awareness for the black men and women who fought for freedom. Framing memories through photographs of black Union soldiers during the Civil War, through to the Reconstruction, the novel will emphasize photography’s role in constructing visibility behind the role of the black soldiers. From her point of view, “the notion of representing and embodying freedom is in the act of being photographed.” Dr. Willis’ fearlessness and undying passion for photography cannot be silenced. Nor can her thirst for purposeful, impactful storytelling for and by the black community.

Inside Deborah’s mother’s beauty shop, by Deborah Willis.

Baptism in East Harlem, 115 Street, by Deborah Willis.

Capturing the Beauty in Justice | Sheila Pree Bright

Admittedly on the shy side, Sheila was initially drawn to photography due to her own introverted tendencies because it allows her to speak what she sees. With zero clue that she was ever going to be a photographer, she took a course during her last year of college which “opened her up” and gave her an exterior method of self expression. Starting in Houston, Texas in the late 90’s, she delved into the photo scene with gangster rap icons like Ice Cube, Class C, The Ghetto Boys, and Scarface as her initial muses. Naive, yet immediately fascinated by the culture, she channeled her curiosities into photo exploration. As a child of a military Dad, she was constantly exposed to new places, people, and museums, where she would notice portraits of 18-19th Century people who “didn’t really look like [her].” She shares a story of being out and about with her mother in Germany, where random people would “ask if they could touch our hair and our skin.” From a young age, she became encapsulated by people, which ultimately supplied enough curiosity to carry her through a very successful portraiture-focused career.

Self-taught in her craft, Sheila surrounded herself by professionals who could give her tidbits of wisdom, wherever possible. She gathered enough expertise to accidentally land herself her first show in Houston, Texas in 1995. “I had never heard of a gallery or a show or an exhibit,” Sheila recalls, though her friend saw her work and recognized that it needed to be seen by the world. She was placed in the show along with three other women, but didn’t show up. “The curator called me and said Sheila, you need to get down here, and all I said was, ‘No I don’t, I don’t need to talk, a picture speaks for itself,” she shares. Eventually, she got down to the show, where she walked in and found a line of people at the door that wanted to talk to her about an image she shot of Class C pointing a gun directly at her. Stupefied by the photo, her audience asked her if the gun was loaded, to which she retorted “I didn’t ask him if he had a bullet in there, I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. I wasn’t worried about the bullets in the gun.” Her curious edge gave way to what became a piece of show-stopping work. Though she wasn’t aware of it at the time, her early work exploring hip hop culture made history.

Undoubtedly, Sheila names her most important body of work to be her nationally recognized, Suburbia, which takes a stab at the American media’s projection of the ‘typical’ African American life outside of an urban environment. “I pointed my camera away from urban, and decided to go into black homes to talk about the invisibility of the black middle class”, Sheila comments on the inspiration of the series, which earned her the 2006 Santa Fe Prize for Photography. While dealing with press during her acceptance, Sheila was “thrown for a loop” by her audience’s confusion with her series, and questioned why she didn’t call it ‘Black Suburbia,’ claiming that she didn’t “have enough signifiers in this work to show that they [were] black homes.”’ She was astonished that the stereotype of what classifies a ‘black suburban home’ could be so ingrained in the public consciousness, that it caused this mass misunderstanding of the work’s true meaning. Bright reiterates the great importance of this work, as it highlights a very prominent opinion of hers, that “when someone sees an image of a black person, they can’t get beyond it.”

When she got on the ground and began photographing The Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, she knew that she was mainly capturing protest imagery, but “wanted to take people beyond that, to show the universal commonalities of all people,” race aside. Though this proved to be a challenge, as she found that if a photo features a black person, people cannot “get past the blackness”, even though “we all bleed the same, we all have fear.” Determined to keep universal commonality top of mind, Sheila looks to elevate this notion through her work, though she highlights what is happening in pop culture, and it so happens that a majority of her subjects are African Americans.

When behind the camera, Sheila hopes to capture the beauty in her work, despite the severity of the subject matter. Simply spoken, “everybody is talking about love, but if you can’t see the justice and beauty in it, then you can’t have love.” She comments on current society at large as she states that if you look at her work and cannot see the beauty in it, though serious at times, then “you don’t know what love is.” This underbelly of universal acceptance is found in all of her work, as she is in a continual pursuit to get us to come together, despite division into our own countless, personal protests. Though our beliefs and passions are split between the movements of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and Immigration Rights, etc., we are not coming together, which Sheila identifies as a crucially divisive fact of the world today. We hear about one another, we see each other marching for our beliefs, though we don’t know each other. Through her powerful storytelling, she hopes to bridge our differences, guide our passions, and unite under one ubiquitous truth: “there is no love without beauty and justice.”

The Colorful World of Representation | Gunner Stahl

Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Gunner’s photography journey has been largely, if not completely, influenced by his inner circle. A contemporary photographer focused on celebrity portraiture, his contribution to the black community grows with every influential face he captures.

Gunner bought his first camera when he turned 18 and, in what seems like no time, was turning candid photos of his uber-talented friends into feature photos to be posted and reposted by hip-hop’s elite.

Soft-spoken and unassuming, Gunner’s work is the total opposite. From toothy A$AP Rocky close-ups to snakeskin-inspired Solange snaps, he takes advantage of the loud, eclectic energy that hip hop culture exudes. Capitalizing on intimate moments between friends, Gunner’s photos evoke a certain sense of calm, which re-enforces the level of trust that stands between him and his muses. For him, inspiration strikes at any given moment—from a casual get together in the backyard of one Mac Miller to the vivid streets of Tokyo with The Weeknd. No matter the location, Gunner hopes to capture a side of his friends that we’re not so used to seeing. At the end of the day, he aims to positively impact his community “by showing [his audience] a new window into black culture.”

While thousands see his photos, few truly see him. Stationed behind the camera at all times, Gunner admits that he doesn’t show his face often, and that “it’s very interesting to see people’s reaction when they realize I’m a black man. Somebody thought I was German just two days ago. I want people to mention me when they talk about black-owned businesses.” Through his success, he wants young black kids to be inspired by his work. Gunner wants to “give kids the hope that they can do something cool and outside the norm.” He aims to champion black representation in his own field, and help the youth realize that they too can pursue a career in the arts, “they don’t just have to pick up a ball.”

For Gunner, Black History Month signifies so much more than what he learned in school when he was growing up. Watching a video of Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s I Have a Dream speech and learning about the Underground Railroad are vitally important to understanding black history, but Gunner is convinced that it should go further. History of past centuries is not the only relevant part of this month’s celebration. Through his art and his actions, Gunner aims to push the importance of speaking on what it could be, while being honest about black representation across the board. As the world evolves, so will photography, as it is shaped by and around black culture. It is artists like Gunner, with ambition and desire for accurate representation, who will ultimately evolve the nature of Black History Month, and how we, as observers, understand it.

Pictured: A$AP Rocky.

Pictured: Lil Uzi Vert.

Thank you for tuning in to celebrate the works of these three immensely accomplished artists during Black History Month. While the focus of this celebration is centered around the cultural impact of African Americans, their history is American history, and the black experience is part of the American experience. Though their works will likely stay relevant and brilliant forever, let’s continue to push for fair representation, inclusion through our art, and support our fellow black artists through every creative endeavor. After all, it is up to all of us.

For more photo magic, explore their social channels below:

Dr. Deborah Willis | Website | Instagram | Find more of Deborah’s work in her book, Posing Beauty

Sheila Pree Bright | Website | Instagram | Find more of Sheila’s work in her book, #1960Now

Gunner Stahl | Product Site| Instagram | Find more of Gunner’s work in his book, Portraits

Topics: Creativity, Photography

Products: Lightroom, Photoshop, Creative Cloud