“Black is beautiful.” -popularized by Kwame Braithwaite

Kwame Brathwaite, dressed in a three-piece suit, came to MoMA PS1 in Queens, NY for his first photography assignment in over 20 years. He was to make portraits of the artist Joanne Petit-Frère (opening photo, top row, first image) who is known for her complex and sculpture-like hairpieces for Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe and Solange. The museum was mounting a show named “Hair Wars.”

On Photography: Kwame Brathwaite, 1938-present
Kwame Brathwaite behind the scenes at his photoshoot for The New Yorker

Siobhán Bohnacker, writing in the New Yorker’s Photo Booth section said, “The inspiration behind the pairing of Petit-Frère and Brathwaite had its roots in another storied style show. In January 1962, at a jazz club on 125th Street, in Harlem, Brathwaite, along with his brother, Elombe Brath, staged the inaugural ‘Naturally’ pageant, featuring all-black models who, in their celebration of Afrocentric dress and natural hairstyles, embodied the Pan-African movement that was resurgent in the wake of the civil rights movement. The declaration that echoed that night in Harlem, ‘Black Is Beautiful,’ has since become synonymous with both the ‘Naturally’ shows and Brathwaite’s striking portraits of Black women.”

African Jazz Art Society & Studios (AJASS)

On Photography: Kwame Brathwaite, 1938-present
Kwame Brathwaite, self-portrait circa 1964

Kwame Brathwaite and his brother, Elombe co-founded what would become known as AJASS starting their own movement that was focused on jazz, design, dance, fashion, Pan-African politics and photography. The idea was to move jazz back uptown from the white nightclubs in lower Manhattan. AJASS pushed shows in the Bronx and Harlem.

During one of the shows, Kwame saw a photographer taking pictures in a dark and smoke-filled club without flash. To him, this was magical. He bought a medium format Mamiya C-33 twin lens camera and taught himself how to work with the available light and shadows. “I just fell in love with the textures,” he once said, “the slight graininess of it.”

Brathwaite was an amateur musician and an avid fan of jazz. He played a tenor saxophone and studied the systems Joseph Schillinger used for composing music. Of his skill as a sax player, he said in an appearance on Harold Channer’s public access program talking about Charlie Parker, “I never could blow like Bird!”

His skills at playing jazz made him a natural when it came to photographing jazz musicians. He knew when the person on stage was about to play a solo for instance. He could anticipate a performer’s motion and be ready with his camera.

Randalls Island Jazz Festival

It was 1959 and Kwame Brathwaite and his camera took the ferry from Manhattan to the jazz festival on Randalls Island. The list of performers then reads like a list of the best of the best jazz players: Dizzy Gilespie (opening photo, bottom row, third image), Dinah Washington, Thelonious Monk He photographed Thelonious Monk from the height of the pianist’s bench making him look like a towering figure (opening photo, top row, second image). He shot Cannonball Adderly, part of the Miles Davis Sextet, offstage being interviewed for the Armed Forces Radio Service (opening photo, bottom row, fourth image on top).

“He understood as a photographer that you always have control of what you’re portraying, but that you are also always driving for the truth of that person,” Brathwaite’s son, Kwame Jr. said, “He’s always seeking out that glow, that inner spirit. That was his mastery.”

Naturally ’62

AJASS put on the first of the “Naturally” shows on January 28, 1962, at the Purple Manor near East 125th Street and Lenox Avenue (now Malcolm X Blvd) called “The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Extravaganza Designed to Restore Our Racial Pride and Standards” that started a series of shows staged twice a year through 1973. Each one was a fashion show, cultural expo, African dance concert and it had political meetings.

Models hit the runway in clothes they designed with inspiration from Africa’s cities like Accra, Nairobi and Dakar (opening photo, bottom row, fourth image on bottom). Braithwaite photographed the fashions in color leading to the style he carried on through his last assignment for the New Yorker.

He also photographed models at street fairs and rallies for politicians. One image shows Nomsa Brath, his brother Elombe’s wife and a sister Grandassa Model riding on the hood of a car with a poster reading “Want Work Build Africa” (opening photo, bottom row, far right image).

Brathwaite began to focus more on commercial work including album covers of Black musicians for Blue Note Records (opening photo, bottom row, first two images top and bottom) in addition to his portraiture and documentary photography. His main focus was always on the beauty of Blackness.

Black megastars’ photographer

During the 1970s, Kwame Brathwaite was often chosen to photograph black celebrities. He photographed Muhammad Ali in Zaire, Africa where he was training for his “Rumble in the Jungle” prizefight with George Foreman (opening photo, top row, last image).

He went with the Jackson 5 to Senegal. He spent time with Bob Marley at Marley’s home in Kingston, Jamaica where they talked about spirituality and politics.

Sources: The New York Times, The New Yorker, Photographs ©Kwame Brathwaite