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Race Stories: Essays

The Race Stories essay series, published monthly on the Lens Blog of the New York Times, is a continuing exploration of the relationship of race to photographic portrayals of race by CADVC Research Professor and Chief Curator, Dr. Maurice Berger.

*Click on Title to Access Essay

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Black Soldiers: Fighting America’s Enemies Abroad and Racism at Home

Lens Blog, New York Times, 5 June 2017

A book documents the complex history of African American soldiers, illuminating their triumphs and challenges.

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Jamel Shabazz’s 40-Years of Sights and Styles in New York

Lens Blog, New York Times, 2 May 2017

Four decades ago, Jamel Shabazz set out to photograph black and Latino young people in New York City and explore the uplifting power of style, fashion, music and culture.

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The Lasting Power of Emmett Till’s Image

Lens Blog, New York Times, 5 April 2017

The controversy over a white artist’s painting of Emmett Till’s corpse raises issues of appropriation without historical context.

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From Slavery to Freedom: Revealing the Underground Railroad

Lens Blog, New York Times, 29 March 2017

While much has been written about the Underground Railroad, there has been little visual documentation. But a new photo book depicts the 1,400 mile long trek through forests, swamps, safe houses, and freedom in the north.

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Rarely Seen Photos of Japanese Internment

Lens Blog, The New York Times, 8 February 2017

Dorothea Lange’s photographs of Japanese Americans interned during World War 2 capture not only the oppression of a people but also their struggle to retain their dignity.

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A Photographer Who Made “Ghosts” Visible

A major retrospective of the work of Ming Smith, a member of the Kamoinge Collective, showcases images that summon up dreamlike states that tease out complex emotions and ideas.

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The Heartbeat of Our Being, in Black and White

Whether depicting the spectacle of people barreling forward in a snowstorm or the faces of his subjects, mostly black but also white, Adger Cowans’ lyrical images portray life as resonant with feeling.

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Black Male Glamour, as Style and Substance

In “Vintage Black Glamour: Gentlemen’s Quarters,” Nichelle Gainer explores how prominent and accomplished black men shaped their image through personal style, taking charge of how they were seen to defy stereotypes.

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A woman blocking dump trucks, slowing construction through civil disobedience as past of a protracted battle against unfair hiring practices at the Downstate Medical Center. Brooklyn. 1963.

Photographing Civil Rights, Up North and Beyond

Lens Blog, The New York Times, 18 October 2016

While the most indelible images from the civil rights era were of protest and conflict in the South, a new book explores the discrimination African-Americans struggled against in the North and elsewhere.

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On the Streets of Harlem, a Sense of ‘Erase and Replace’

Lens Blog The New York Times, 11 October 2016

 Dawoud Bey’s large-scale photos of Harlem show the legendary cradle of African-American life confronting speculation, displacement and gentrification.

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Reconsidering the Black Panthers, Through Photo

Lens Blog The New York Times, 8 September 2016

A book and exhibit document the complexities of the Black Panther Party, a storied group that the F.B.I. once deemed “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”

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Whiteness and Race, Between the Storms

Lens Blog The New York Times, 11 August 2016

Pete Mauney asks viewers to look at race relations through white eyes in order to confront unspoken privilege and the lack of diversity in their lives.

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Photographs that Challenge Stereotypes about African American Youth

Lens Blog The New York Times, 19 July 2016

Picturing Children, the latest in a series of books published by the Smithsonian’s soon-to-open National Museum of African American History and Culture, resonates with the joy, contentment, resistance, determination, dissent and the routines of everyday African-American life.

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Black Dandies, Style Rebels with a Cause

Lens Blog The New York Times, 16 June 2016

The traveling exhibit “Dandy Lion” presents striking images of dapper men of African descent whose sartorial flair challenges notions of race and masculinity.

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Why Chinatown Still Matters

Lens Blog The New York Times, 16 May 2016

Dean Wong’s new book on Chinese-American communities is a powerful corrective to decades of reporting on neighborhoods often represented in the cultural mainstream as exotic, insular or irrelevant.

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Lee Friedlander’s Overlooked Civil Rights Photographs

Lens Blog The New York Times, 22 February 2016

A new book shows how before Lee Friedlander became known as the quintessential street photographer, he chronicled an important — if sometimes overlooked — moment in civil rights history.

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Kamoinge’s Half Century of African American Photography

Lens Blog The New York Times, 22 January 2016

A new book takes a look at the collective’s groundbreaking work in “speaking of our lives as only we can.”

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The Modern Spirits of Ebony and Jet

Lens Blog The New York Times, 3 December 2015

Images of the empty interiors at the modernist headquarters of the Johnson Publishing Company uncannily embody the spirit of the groundbreaking African-American company that occupied the building for 40 years.

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Gordon Parks’s Harlem Argument

Lens Blog The New York Times, 11 November 2015

A look at Gordon Parks’s first photo essay for Life shows how editors’ choices of words and pictures can manipulate meaning.

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Photographing Japan, Through Shadows of the Past

Lens Blog The New York Times, 6 October 2015

Ishiuchi Miyako came of age in postwar Japan, in a town where she was caught between the lure of American pop culture and the fear of the military occupation that accompanied it.

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A Meditation on Race, in Shades of White

Lens Blog The New York Times, 17 September 2015

Marion Palfi set out to document racism and segregation in Georgia in the 1940s. Her unpublished manuscript that followed reveals racial attitudes that were neither uniform nor without ambivalence.

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In China, the Photobook as Art and History

Lens Blog The New York Times, 30 July 2015

An ambitious survey of China’s rich and diverse history of photobooks represents a turning point in narrowing the comprehension gap between East and West.

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Making a Confederate Flag Invisible

Lens Blog The New York Times, 30 June 2015

Removing the Confederate flag from the public square is but a first step toward deeper reflection on race.

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Past and Present Collide in Pittsburgh

Lens Blog The New York Times, 2 June 2015

Sometimes it takes a connection to the past to better understand the present. For essayists exploring African-American life in Pittsburgh, a trove of 80,000 photos taken by Charles “Teenie” Harris proves a great inspiration.

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African-American Life, Double-Exposed

Lens Blog The New York Times, 17 April 2015

Through the African American Lens, culled from a Smithsonian collection, shows how photography – and black photographers – reshaped a people’s image.

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Documenting Selma, from the Inside

Lens Blog The New York Times, 2 Mar 2015

The best-known images of the civil rights era were often dramatic and shocking, intentionally so, to jar a nation into action. But James Barker provided a quieter, insider’s perspective to the daily struggle.

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Complicating the Picture of Urban Life

Lens Blog The New York Times, 23 Feb 2015

A new exhibit features three Bronx-born photographers whose work explores the idea of community while challenging outdated, lingering notions.

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Robert Frank, Telling it like it Was

Lens Blog The New York Times, 15 Jan 2015

Robert Frank’s favorite image from “The Americans” captures the contradiction of racism in the liberal climes of mid-century San Francisco.

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Finding Robert Frank, Online

Lens Blog The New York Times, 14 Jan 2015

A new online resource from the National Gallery allows viewers to explore its vast collection of Robert Frank’s work – from contact sheets to ephemera.

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American Culture, Riding a Mushroom Cloud

Lens Blog The New York Times, 24 Dec 2014

In “Chewing Gum and Chocolate,” Shomei Tomatsu explored the attractions and contradictions of American culture and the military in postwar Japan.

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When Glamour Speaks Your Name

Lens Blog The New York Times, 28 Nov 2014

A new book looks at the history of how black women used style and substance to counter stereotypes — or invisibility — in the mainstream.

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A Limited View of Boys from the Bronx

Lens Blog The New York Times, 22 Oct 2014

Examining Stephen Shames’s new book “Bronx Boys,” Maurice Berger raises questions about the responsibilities inherent in documenting a community.

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LaToya Ruby Frazier’s Notion of Family

Lens Blog The New York Times, 14 Oct 2014

LaToya Ruby Frazier looked at her family’s history to build an enduring narrative of African-American life in the Rust Belt town where she was raised.

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Black Fathers, Present and Accountable

Lens Blog The New York Times, 19 Sep 2014

Zun Lee has produced a photo book that challenges the persistent narrative that African-American fathers are absent from the lives of their children.

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In Ferguson, Photographs as Powerful Agents

Lens Blog The New York Times, 20 Aug 2014

The history of black representation has resonated with the types of images now prevalent in social media. Whether in 1950s Mississippi or Ferguson today, the camera has served as witness, provocateur and agent of change.

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Meditation on President Obama’s Portrait

Lens Blog The New York Times, 25 July 2014

A portrait of Barack Obama before he became president reveals an unguarded moment in the life of a very private man.

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What the Camera Sees, and Doesn’t See

Lens Blog The New York Times, 27 June 2014

A life-changing illness led Kim Weston to return to her roots, both in art and family, exploring the ties between relatives and the past.

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Latin Americas Mutating Cities, in Photographs

Lens Blog The New York Times, 16 May 2014

An ambitious new exhibit shows the many transformations – social, physical and cultural – that have remade Latin America.

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A Cultural History of Civil Rights

Lens Blog The New York Times, 10 May 2014

A recent book chronicles the artistic and cultural efforts that were an essential – if overlooked – part of the civil rights movement.

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Holding a Mirror to Race

Lens Blog The New York Times, 24 March 2014

A new website uses vintage photos — presented at first without context — to get viewers to confront everyday assumptions about race.

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Born by a River, Watching the Change

Lens Blog, The New York Times, 21 February 2014

For some, Braddock, Pa., embodies the decline of the small Rust Belt town. For LaToya Ruby Frazier, it is home, which she explores in a series of elegiac images.

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Black Performers, Fading from Frame, and Memory

Lens Blog, The New York Times, 22 January 2014

Carrie Mae Weems’s series “Slow Fade to Black” plays on the concept of the cinematic fade, showing mid-20th century female black performers “disappearing, dissolving before our eyes.”

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Pictures of Men, Friends or Lovers

Lens Blog, The New York Times, 10 January 2014

A collection of images of African-American men together, from the Civil War to the present, challenges modern discomfort with male intimacy, sexual or otherwise.

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One Drop, but Many Views on Race

Lens Blog, The New York Times, 16 December 2013

A series of portraits and an accompanying book argue that racial identity is not merely biological or genetic, but also a matter of context and even personal choice.

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A Civil Rights Photographer, and a Struggle, are Remembered

Lens Blog, The New York Times, 14 November 2013

By chronicling the Delano grape strike in California in the 1960s, Jon Lewis exposed the harrowing story of labor behind the fruits and vegetables that Americans consumed without thought.

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Anonymous Men, Made Real

Lens Blog, The New York Times, 7 October 2013

An exhibition seeks to restore the humanity and immediacy of the soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Army, the first black regiment raised in the North during the Civil War.

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Re-imagining a Tragedy, 50-Years Later

Lens Blog, The New York Times, 13 September 2013

Dawoud Bey explores the relationship of past to present with diptychs of people the same age as the victims of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing — both at the time of the bombings and in the present day.

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A Momentous Day Driven by Ordinary People

Lens Blog, The New York Times, 22 August 2013

The photography of Leonard Freed, whose images explored the March on Washington at ground level, still resonates 50 years after that historic day.

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A Russian American Photographer in Native Alaska

Lens Blog, The New York Times, 17 July 2013

In southeastern Alaska at the turn of the 20th century, a Russian-American photographer’s intimate understanding of his community was a prerequisite for photographing it.

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The Woman in a Jim Crow Photo

Lens Blog, The New York Times, 6 June 2013

Gordon Parks documented some of the quieter, but no less compelling or important, moments of the civil rights struggle. Decades later, one of his subjects recalls a poignant image.

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Civil Rights, One Person and One Photo at a Time

Lens Blog, The New York Times, 22 April 2013

In the midst of the national struggle for civil rights, James Karales, born into an immigrant Greek family in Ohio, turned his camera on the individuals fighting for rights and respect.

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Framing—and Reflecting—Beauty

Lens Blog, The New York Times, 11 March 2013

A photo in Deborah WIllis’s new exhibit shows a woman holding a mirror inside a beauty parlor. It underscores how African-Americans have constructed their image to empower themselves.

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Images of Emancipation

Lens Blog, The New York Times, 20 December 2012

A new book argues that photography was not incidental but central to the war against slavery, racism and segregation in the 1850s through the 1930s.

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Lynchings in the West, Erased from History and Photos

Lens Blog, The New York Times, 6 December 2012

Seeking to underscore a seemingly absent history, Ken Gonzales-Day altered 19th and 20th century postcards of lynchings in the American West, removing the bodies from the original scenes.

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Malcolm X as Visual Strategist

Lens Blog, The New York Times, 19 September 2012

Malcolm X was keenly aware of the power of images to transform the 20th century.

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A Radically Prosaic Approach to Civil Rights Images

Lens Blog, The New York Times, 16 July 2012

Gordon Parks’s photographs of blacks in the South at the height of the Jim Crow era showed African-Americans living “in a complete universe.” Many, however, were unpublished or unseen until now.