Photographs by Terrence A. Reese Capture Private Moments with African American Icons

February 1, 2017

 

Photographs by Terrence A. Reese Capture Private Moments with African American Icons,

Now on View at Zimmerli

 

New Brunswick, NJ – Reflections: Photographs of Iconic African Americans by Terrence A. Reese (TAR), on view through July 30, 2017, presents important figures, from a variety of walks of life, who have made significant contributions to American society. Featuring 65 of the artist’s black-and-white photographs of individuals selected from his 2012 book, the exhibition incorporates the artist’s signature strategy, which bridges history and the present. While portraiture is one of the oldest genres in art and remains an engaging approach for capturing the fleeting, often personal, moments of people’s lives, Chicago-based photographer Terrence A. Reese (also known as TAR) has updated the tradition. Accompanying each photograph is a text by Reese that describes both the contributions of the sitters – civil rights leaders, educators, writers, visual artists, musicians, politicians, physicians, business leaders – and his own anecdotal reflections about the process of creating each photograph, revealing the collaborative encounter between artist and subject.

 

“Reese depicts a very personal view of these public figures, inviting audiences to connect with pioneers who shaped 20th-century American culture and history, and whose values resonate today,” observed Donna Gustafson, the Zimmerli’s Curator of American Art and Mellon Director for Academic Programs. “He has documented individuals who have been successful in an array of professions, many with overlapping roles as activists who have fought against racial, social, and economic inequality. Reese also creates a continuity across generations, incorporating the sitters’ historical accomplishments with their contemporary lives and ongoing legacies.”

 

Reese combined skills he developed as an architectural draftsman with established portrait traditions to devise his technique. He carefully framed his subjects and captured their reflections in mirrors within their homes, offices, and studios. The rich interiors are filled with books and artwork, as well as public and personal mementos: symbolic items in the portrait tradition that convey the significance of the sitter’s personality and accomplishments.

 

Kaitlin Booher, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Art History at Rutgers who worked as a guest curator on the exhibition, noted, “Reese’s series engages with history and art history on a number of levels and demonstrates the evolution of the genre of portraiture from painting to photography.  In contrast to the process of formal portrait painting, photography allows for the faster creation and broader dissemination of works, yet artists are still met with the same challenges of how to represent the lives and personalities of their sitters. Reese’s compositions serve to unify the series as a whole and result in layered and complex photographs that celebrate their subjects.”

 

The series began in 1994 with a portrait of Esther and James Jackson, who worked for more than 60 years building a multiracial, labor-led coalition, promoting voter registration. Their reflections appear in mirrors that sit on two well-worn chairs, side-by-side, showing the couple comfortable at home. The husband and wife team’s efforts in the 1930s – working with mentors from the prior generation, such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson – preceded the historical beginning of the civil rights movement by nearly three decades. Their legacy continues: although Mr. Jackson passed away in 2007, Esther will turn 100 later this year. Their lives also are examined in the recent biography James and Esther Cooper Jackson: Love and Courage in the Black Freedom Movement by Rutgers alumna Sara Rzeszutek Haviland.

 

Many of the individuals Reese photographed were the first African Americans to hold positions of prominence in their respective fields. To name just a few: David Dinkins, mayor of New York City from 1990 to 1993; Cathy Hughes, founder of Radio One and the first African American woman to own a publicly traded company; and Ophelia DeVore-Mitchell, the nation’s first mixed-race model, who opened the first modeling agency dedicated to providing Black women opportunities to succeed. Journalist Marvel Cooke became the first African American, as well as the only woman, hired as a staff reporter by the mainstream, all-white New York newspaper the Daily Compass in 1950. In the center of the shot taken at Cooke’s home, a small mirror on the desk in reflects her broad smile. During their meeting, Cooke recalled for the photographer having lived most of her life in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, home to some of the nation’s most notable African American luminaries, among them, Cooke’s longtime friend Langston Hughes, whose image the photographer incorporated into the scene.

 

Reese also documented several artists of the 20th century. His sitters included sculptor Dr. Selma H. Burke and painter Lois Mailou Jones, who both gained critical and public notice during the Harlem Renaissance, as well as painters Edward Clark and Paul Collins (who launched careers more than a half century ago and remain active), and SoHo gallerist June Kelly, who had managed the career of artist Romare Bearden. Perhaps the most challenging image, though, was of Gordon Parks, as the younger artist faced a legend in his own field. However, the apartment of the award-winning photojournalist - who was the first African American photographer at Life magazine - proved to be the ideal environment for Reese’s vision. Mirrored columns created multi-dimensional views within the space, and the opportunity for Parks to place another photograph of himself that, at a quick glance, could be mistaken for the intended reflection.

 

Reese enjoyed opportunities to photograph many who have shaped music and popular culture over the past century. Among those included in the photographer’s project include: Fayard and Harold Nicholas, whose acrobatic tap routines launched their careers in the early 1930s and lasted more than six decades, influencing dancers from Fred Astaire to Michael Jackson; and Odetta and Richie Havens, who influenced other folk and rock musicians from the 1960s to the present. There also are portraits of Melvin Van Peebles, who launched a prolific career in the 1950s that has encompassed film, theater, music, literature, and visual art; and entrepreneur Russell Simmons, who, with producer Rick Rubin, transformed the Def Jam record label into a powerhouse that fueled hip hop into a cultural movement across all media. In his 1996 portrait, B.B. King sinks back in the scene, seated in a corner across from the mirror in his tour bus dressing room, partially blocked by a computer and wires. But there is no mistaking King’s accomplishments, as his guitar Lucille, almost as famous as the musician himself, is prominently propped up in the foreground.

 

Many of Reese’s subjects were over the age of 60 at the time they were photographed, but never settled into a status quo attitude that their work was done. The 1996 portrait of Helen O. Dickens, taken when she was nearly 90, shows her reclined on the sofa, with a broad smile. And a table in the scene filled with paperwork and office supplies indicates that she has no intention of slowing down. Her parents – a former slave turned janitor and a low-paid domestic worker – stressed the importance of education. She eventually became the first African American woman admitted to the American College of Surgeons and carried out a long career at the University of Pennsylvania, which now houses the Helen O. Dickens Center for Women. In addition to her own position as a top researcher in women’s reproductive health, Dr. Dickens served as an associate dean, allowing her to guide other minority students toward success at the institution. Reese noted during his session with Dr. Dickens, “It’s always an honor to see firsthand what African Americans have endured to gain respect in America.”

 

Reflections: Photographs of Iconic African Americans by Terrence A. Reese, on view January 17 to July 30, 2017, is organized by Kaitlin Booher, Graduate Fellow, Department of Art History, Rutgers University, with the assistance of Donna Gustafson, Curator of American Art and Mellon Director of Academic Programs. It is supported by the Estate of Ralph Voorhees and donors to the Zimmerli's Major Exhibition Fund: James and Kathrin Bergin; Alvin and Joyce Glasgold; Charles and Caryl Sills; Voorhees Family Endowment; and the Jerome A. Yavitz Charitable Foundation, Inc.—Stephen Cypen, President. All works in the exhibition are gelatin silver prints, courtesy of the artist.

 

ZIMMERLI ART MUSEUM|RUTGERS

The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum houses more than 60,000 works of art, ranging from ancient to contemporary art. The permanent collection features particularly rich holdings in 19th-century French art; Russian art from icons to the avant-garde; Soviet nonconformist art from the Dodge Collection; and American art with notable holdings of prints. In addition, small groups of antiquities, old master paintings, as well as art inspired by Japan and original illustrations for children’s books, provide representative examples of the museum’s research and teaching message at Rutgers. One of the largest and most distinguished university-based art museums in the nation, the Zimmerli is located on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Established in 1766, Rutgers is America’s eighth oldest institution of higher learning and a premier public research university.

 

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