Photographer Kwame Brathwaite died on Saturday, April 1 at the age of 85, his son Kwame Samori Brathwaite Jr. announced on social media. Brathwaite, who was largely inspired by the teachings and writings of Marcus Garvey and Carlos Cooks, held a 60-year photography career that popularized the “Black is Beautiful” movement in the 1960s and continued to empower African and African-American cultural expression and achievements throughout his lifetime.
Brathwaite was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Barbadian immigrants Cecil and Margaret Etelka Brathwaite on January 1, 1938. A middle child, Brathwaite and his brothers Elombe and John Edward grew up in South Bronx where he was admitted to the School of Industrial Art (now called the High School of Art and Design) during the early ’50s. Brathwaite had considered a career in graphic design until 1955 when he came across photos in Jet Magazine of 14-year-old Emmett Till lying mutilated in his casket after he was murdered by White civilians in Drew, Mississippi that year. The sight of this brutal murder, publicized to the entire nation with mother Mamie Till’s permission and encouragement, ignited something within Brathwaite, who understood the power of photography and exposure in the quest to recalibrate public understanding of Blackness.
One year later, Brathwaite and his older brother Elombe turned to art and activism by co-founding the African Jazz Art Society and Studios (AJASS) to serve as a cultural hub for music, fashion, and performing arts as a means of reintegrating the jazz scene back uptown from where it strayed. As AJASS began organizing shows across Harlem and the Bronx, Brathwaite observed a man taking photos at one of the events and decided to try it out for himself, saying that he just “fell in love with the textures,” specifically the “slight graininess to it.”
Brathwaite’s artistic inclinations made him a natural at capturing the AJASS nightlife, knowing exactly when a musician would embark on a solo onstage or anticipating the directions of a performance. Soon after he picked up the camera, Brathwaite found himself photographing jazz legends such as Thelonious Monk, Dinah Washington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Cannonball Adderley at the Randalls Island Jazz Festival in 1958.
In 1962, AJASS forayed headfirst into fashion and editorial photography with the conception of Grandassa Models, a group of diverse Black women sporting natural hair, full lips, and a variety of body types. That year, Brathwaite and the Grandassa Models celebrated pan-African culture and artistry through “Naturally ’62,” an AJASS-affiliated fashion show at the Purple Manor jazz club in Harlem. “We said, ‘We’ve got to do something to make the women feel proud of their hair, proud of their blackness,’” Brathwaite recalled in the New Yorker in 2019 when reminiscing on the impact of the Grandassa Models.
It was through “Naturally” and its subsequent annual event series that Brathwaite and the Grandassa Models catapulted “Black is Beautiful” into a national movement. Brathwaite’s photos of the models, including his wife Sikolo, in Afrocentric clothing and accessories as they walked down the catwalk to live jazz and posters celebrating Marcus Garvey and Patrice Lumumba were instrumental in politicizing the essence of Black success. Brathwaite’s model headshots began gracing high-grossing album covers from the Blue Note Records jazz label such as Lou Donaldson’s “Good Gracious!” (1963) and Freddie Roach’s “Brown Sugar” (1964), rejecting the prescribed beauty ideals of the 1960s.
By the ’70s, Brathwaite was the choice Black celebrity photographer, capturing portraits of Muhammad Ali, Roberta Flack, Grace Jones, Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonders, and even the Jackson 5 during a family trip to Senegal.
As a career photographer, Brathwaite was best recognized for his work in pop culture and media rather than in the white walls of galleries and exhibition venues. Through his representation at Philip Martin Gallery in Los Angeles, California, Brathwaite’s iconic photography has been featured in solo exhibitions, group shows, and art fairs over the last decade. The Aperture Foundation also organized a traveling exhibition honoring Brathwaite’s contributions to the “Black is Beautiful” movement that moved from coast to coast between 2019 and 2020. Contemporary Black artists today credit Brathwaite’s photography as inspiration for their craft, including Barbadian singer Rihanna who used his “Black is Beautiful”-era photography as a parallel to her own imagery for her Fenty clothing line ad campaign.
Brathwaite’s photography is on view in Kwame Brathwaite: Things Well Worth Waiting For through July 24 at the Art Institute of Chicago.