9 Groundbreaking Black Photographers Who Captured Incredible Moments in History

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Don Hogan Charles captured the moment U.S. Representative Shirley Chisholm of Brooklyn announced her entry for the Democratic nomination for the presidency at the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn on January 25, 1972, becoming the first woman and first African-American to seek the nomination from one of the two major political parties.

Charles is remembered for his arresting shots of the civil rights movement, including the famous photo of Malcolm X peering out of his window while holding a gun in his Queens home for Ebony magazine; he was also the first Black photographer hired by the New York Times.

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Don Hogan Charles took this image for the New York Times of a National Guardsmen standing with a rifle atop a personnel carrier vehicle, blocking traffic from leaving the area during race riots in Newark, New Jersey on July 16, 1967.

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Addison Scurlock took this iconic portrait of Madam C.J. Walker, the first Black woman millionaire in the U.S., in 1913. The photographer was known for his portraits, which captured the beauty, depth and complexities of Black Americans and how Black culture was flourishing in the early 1900s, during a time when minstrel caricature was common. 

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Moneta Sleet Jr. captured Coretta Scott King comforting her youngest daughter Bernice during funeral services for Martin Luther King Jr. in the Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 9, 1968. The photo earned him a Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. Sleet Jr. became the first African American to win the prestigious award.

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James Van Der Zee, pictured, is honored for documenting the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s and ’30s, capturing the vibrance of the neighborhood and celebrities, such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Mamie Smith.

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James Van Der Zee took this shot of activist Marcus Garvey, seen here in military uniform during a Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.) parade in Harlem in 1924.

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This portrait of Fredrick Douglass was taken by James Presley Ball on January 12, 1867 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Ball, an entrepreneur and abolitionist, spent his career taking portraits and photos through the tempestuous years of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and grew his photography service into a highly respected and profitable business. Ball helped to maintain Cincinnati as an artistic center in the 1850s.

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Gordon Parks, pictured, is one of the most important photographers of the twentieth century. His work depicted American life and culture and his range of work spanned from civil rights and poverty to fashion and entertainment. Parks was deeply committed to social justice and expanded his work into writing, music and film.

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Ella Watson standing with a broom and mop in front of the American flag was photographer Gordon Parks’ reinterpretation of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting, as part of a project for the Farm Security Administration in 1942. (Learn more about his photographs of Watson here.)

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Parks captured a woman and her dog taking in the sights as they looked out from their Harlem apartment in May 1943. 

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The Bethune-Cookman College football team gathered in a huddle in January 1943 in Daytona Beach, Florida — another famous image taken by Parks.

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Attendees admired photographs from Jamel Shabazz’s “A Time Before Crack” exhibition in 2005 at the Powerhouse Gallery in N.Y.C. The collection of work showcased what life was like before crack ravaged neighborhoods throughout New York City.

“I put out Time Before Crack to show people the beauty of our communities before that drug,” the Brooklyn-born photographer explained in an interview with Vice. “You can look at these photographs and see people smiling, you can see a spirit of love and togetherness. Once crack came, everything changed, even the language, people’s style, attitude, music… everything.”

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Shabazz is celebrated for documenting everyday life, evolving cultures and social conditions in N.Y.C. since first picking up a camera in 1975.

Here, he’s seen signing autographs during his 2005 exhibit.

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Coreen Simpson’s work is displayed as part of the “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85” exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in 2018.

As a notable photojournalist, Simpson covered political and cultural icons and special events in N.Y.C. and beyond. Her photos have appeared in Vogue, Essence, The New York Times and The Village Voice.

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Photographer and multimedia artist Lorna Simpson sits on the floor of her studio in front of her installation Wigs, which explores the history of African American hairstyles and how hair has taken on social and political implications. Simpson investigates identify, race and gender and history through several mediums, including photography, film, drawing, sculpture, installations and video.

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