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Remembering Kwame Brathwaite Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

4 April 2023

Kwame Brathwaite, the photographer who "made black beautiful," as historian Tanisha C. Ford wrote, has died. He was 85.

Braithwaite was born on New Year's Day 1938 to immigrant parents from Barbados who raised him and his older brother Elombe in what he fondly called "the People's Republic of Brooklyn."

He was an excellent student, gaining admission into the School of Industrial Art where he studied for a career in graphic design. But two experiences turned him into a photographer.

But in August 1955, he saw the effect of David Jackson's photographs of 14-year-old Emmett Till's tortured body, which Till's mother courageously consented to have published in Jet magazine, on the nation.

The following year, inspired by the writings of Marcus Garvey, he and his brother co-founded what would later be known as the African Jazz Art Society and Studios, centered on jazz, photography, design, dance, fashion and Pan-African politics.

'He knew his purpose.'

AJASS promoted jazz performances in Harlem and the Bronx where Brathwaite watch a young man taking photos in the dark club without a flash. Intrigued, he tried it himself using a Hasselblad loaded with Kodak Tri-X black-and-white film. "I just fell in love with the textures," Brathwaite recalled, "the slight graininess of it."

As a 21-year-old, he photographed the musicians of his day developing a style described as more jazz-like than photojournalist.

He shot Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Sarah Vaughan, Horace Silver, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Ahmad Jamal, Stan Kenton and the Modern Jazz Quartet all in one three-night festival.

In 1962, AJASS staged Naturally '62: The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Extravaganza Designed to Restore Our Racial Pride and Standards, the first in a series held twice a year through 1973 and then sporadically until 1992. the fashion show was complemented by an African dance concert, political meeting and cultural expo. Braithwaite photographed them in color.

He was with his brother in 1965 when he asked a woman who he saw shopping on 125th Street if she would model for him at his studio. She was suspicious of the two men, so she brought a friend along to the Harlem Studio where the walls were lined with photos of the Grandassa Models from the Black Is Beautiful movement.

Sikolo, the woman who had been shopping, soon became one of them. And the next year she married Braithwaite.

Throughout the 1960s, Brathwaite worked for leading black publications, including The Amsterdam News, City Sun and The Daily Challenge.

In the early 1970s he switch from jazz shows to more lucrative R&B concerts, awards shows and large sporting and political events. He also moved from the medium format Hasselblad to the more nimble 35mm format with a Canon.

He became the unofficial house photographer for the Apollo Theater, where he photographed Chaka Khan and Whitney Houston, among many others. He shot on commission for magazines, including the U.K.-based Blues & Soul, photographing Bob Marley, Sly Stone and others.

He put away his camera at 83 when health problems forced his hand. He subsequently spent his time at home with Sikolo, his wife of 57 years, in an apartment on the border of Harlem and Spanish Harlem overlooking Central Park.

"People can go their entire lives without finding their purpose," Sikolo once said of her husband's long career. "He knew his purpose."

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