For its most recent exhibit, the Teen Curators program at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City drew inspiration from a groundbreaking book about black women photographers to explore the power of the black feminine gaze.
“This was the first time we were going to look at photography as a medium,” said Zenzele Johnson, education coordinator for the Teen Curators at the Schomburg Center, a research division of the New York Public Library and an archive for materials documenting black life in America and worldwide. “We were really interested in looking at the collection and research of a woman.”
The work, which was chosen as a guide for the Teen Curators project, was Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe’s book, Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers, which chronicles the photography of 33 black women spanning the mid-1800s to the 1980s. Among the photographers featured are Elise Forrest Harleston, Elnora Teal, Elizabeth “Tex” Williams, Coreen Simpson and Fern Logan.
“Described as an historical survey, Viewfinders not only looks at black life and subjectivity, but shifts the gaze to the lives of black women often never depicted behind the camera,” states the Teen Curators exhibition page. After the publication of her book in 1986, Moutoussamy-Ashe donated her research to the Schomburg Center, which is located in Harlem.
“We just knew it was a remarkable story,” Johnson said of Viewfinders. “So many photographers within the book and within the exhibition do not get the proper recognition in the field.”
In order to create their own interpretations of the work in Viewfinders, the 30 teens were separated into three groups, with each focusing on a specific set of images and examining the themes and narratives of the images before producing their own portraiture, still life and experimental photography. Moutoussamy-Ashe also spoke with the young curators and artists about the process of creating Viewfinders. The teens’ creations were then displayed at the Schomburg Center alongside reproductions of the archival materials.
In deciding on a name for the exhibit -- Femmotography: The Gaze Shifted -- the group sought to be inclusive of women and those who identify as women, as well as both the photographers and participants in the work. Johnson explained that the subtitle’s meaning was implied. “We are constantly asking ourselves, from whose perspective should a story be told for it to be accurate,” Johnson said.
Although the exhibition is currently closed to the public to prevent the spread of Covid-19, organizers are working to create a digital version so that the project can be viewed online from anyplace in the world. In addition, the exhibit had opened for several months of public viewing, beginning in June 2019 with a celebration that Johnson described as “magical.” A number of prominent photographers, including Dr. Deborah Willis -- an artist, photographer, photographic historian and chair of New York University's Department of Photography and Imaging -- and Chester Higgins -- who worked as a staff photographer for the New York Times for more than four decades -- were in attendance, and Willis gave a keynote address to herald the teens’ artwork.
“I think people are really surprised that teens are tackling these issues,” Johnson said. “For me as an educator, it is really important that our teens are questioning whatever is around them.”