Photographer Kwame Brathwaite, who through his warm and elegant photos documenting life and culture adjacent to the civil rights and Black Power movements popularized the phrase “Black is beautiful,” died in Brooklyn on April 1 at the age of eighty-five. Brathwaite with his older brother Elombe Brath cofounded the African Jazz Art Society and Studios (AJASS) and Grandassa Models, both of which successfully brought ideals of dark-skinned beauty into the mainstream at a time when even magazines aimed at primarily African American audiences, such as Ebony and Jet, promoted and held women to a standard of beauty that reflected white benchmarks of attractiveness. “We were protesting how, in Ebony magazine, you couldn’t find an ebony girl,” he told Aperture’s Tanisha Ford in 2020.
Kwame Brathwaite was born January 1, 1938, in Brooklyn to parents who had immigrated to the US from Barbados. When he was five, the family moved north to the South Bronx. Intending to become a graphic designer, Brathwaite enrolled in the School of Industrial Art (now the High School of Art and Design). A teenage encounter with photographs of the brutalized body of ten-year-old Emmett Till in the pages of Jet left him shaken, and in 1955, he turned his attention to documentary photography. His interest in the form was compounded after he saw an acquaintance taking pictures in a nightclub without the aid of a flash. Brathwaite soon began shooting with a high-speed film suitable for low-light situations. The resulting photos bore a large grain which lent his shots of dancers, musicians, and celebrants a dreamy intimacy while evoking action and excitement.
In 1956, Brathwaite and Brath with a group of friends established the collective African Jazz Art Society and Studios, or AJASS which counted among its members playwrights, graphic artists, dancers, and fashion designers. Jazz societies were common then, but the use of the word African was not: Brathwaite would later cite activist Carlos Cooks’s fiery repetition of phrases coined by Marcus Garvey—among them “Go back to Africa” and “Black is beautiful”—as inspiring them to turn toward the then-unfashionable term. The group’s members began booking jazz shows featuring musicians including John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, and Philly Joe Jones, with Brathwaite taking pictures. His photos of the future legends, both onstage and in their homes, soon earned him enough money to buy a good camera, and he spent the latter half of the 1950s and the early 1960s in the streets of Harlem, shooting parades, protests, and prosaic scenes of everyday life.
In 1962, AJASS expanded its purview to include fashion shows, the first of which was titled “Naturally ’62: The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Extravaganza Designed to Restore Our Racial Pride and Standards.” Brathwaite and Brath with the assistance of fellow AJASS member Jimmy Abu recruited local young women to appear in the show whose dark skin and natural hairstyles contrasted with the ironed hair and light skin tones then considered fashionable. Dubbed the Grandassa models, the women appeared in vibrantly patterned dresses and chunky jewelry, instantly embodying the zeitgeist of the day. The shows became a regular event not just in Harlem but in venues across the country, the looks presented therein disseminated to the world and popularized through the very publications that had once shied away from overt expressions of Blackness.
In 1964, Brathwaite began shooting at the Apollo Theater, lensing ascending and established stars. His reputation grew, and as the Naturally pageants faded into the past, Brathwaite achieved the status of in-demand photographer, photographing stars ranging from Muhummad Ali to Bob Marley to Whitney Houston. Increasingly delving into Pan-Africanism, he was able, thanks to his financial success in the realm of commercial photography and photojournalism, to travel with Brath to Africa in the 1970s. There, the pair worked alongside and documented the efforts of activists in countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Congo, Namibia, Tanzania, and Kenya, among others.
Despite his influential achievements, Brathwaite only became widely known and acknowledged in recent years. In 2017, he was honored at the seventy-fifth gala of Aperture magazine; the following year, his work appeared in the pages of the New Yorker, and in 2019 critic Antwaun Sargent cited his “Black is beautiful” aesthetic as the main influence for a number of contemporary young artists. An exhibition of his work mounted by Aperture has been traveling around the country since 2019. “Things Worth Waiting For,” a selection of his photographs centering his passion for music, is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through July 24. Asked by Aperture’s Ford to comment on his legacy a few years before his death, Brathwaite was succinct, replying simply, “I love Black people.”