Cultural Relevance and Influence in the Arts
The history of modern photography began in 1839 when the daguerreotype camera, developed by Louis Daguerre and Joseph Niepce, became the innovative tool for preserving historical imagery in the early 19th century. Prior to this, the main methods for capturing imagery were via the traditional artist and paintbrush or the use of a camera obscura, a device that projected an image of its surroundings onto a screen, after which an artist would carefully “trace” the image thereby providing an accurate representation.
The daguerreotype became the premier method of photography in the 1840s. It was then that African American photographers Augustus Washington, Presley Ball, and Jules Lion, considered among the pioneers in photography, began to develop a visual legacy of Black Americans, which documented the slave experience through to the Civil Rights Era.
From 1842 to 1942, African American photo artists and educators were continually recognized for their accomplishments. Black photographers of the time seized the moment to counter the negative perceptions of black people by taking portraits that represented societal norms—photographs of weddings, family and community events, even photographic documentation of personal achievements, helped to communicate accurately that black Americans could also experience personal triumphs and social dignities.
As for the social and political movements during the first half of the twentieth century, not every photograph forwarded by the media portrayed positive representations of the civil rights movement. Hence, it was important during the 1950’s and 60’s for photographers to lead the way in preserving the positive events during the civil rights movement. Black photographers; Jack Franklin, Jonathan Eubanks, among others, pictorially noted the importance of expanding positive societal awareness to these events, helping to contradict the negative depictions and impact of the cultural media mainstream by also promoting an accurate awareness of the peaceful civil rights demonstrations, preserving evidence of diversity, individual and societal goals and values.
Photography could be considered a tool to communicate, empower, and capture unique and important moments in history—one frame at a time. Moreover, photography’s intended purpose—to represent artistically cultural expressions, people, phenomena, styles, tragedies, and various individual artistic perceptions—can be especially true in fashion photography.
Fashion photography serves as a cultural watermark for a given time period. It is a solid indicator of the socio-political climate of an era. During the 1900s—and specifically during the ’20s and ’30s—changing fashion trends symbolized women’s struggle for sexual, economic, and social equality. The influence of couture continued into the ’50s, when the fashion and glamor of the era was captured by the iconic women of the time like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Audrey Hepburn. However, not many of the iconic fashion images of the 1950s were representative of all women.
Raquel Griffin, a photographer, creative director, and fashion stylist, is the visionary behind The Fifties: A Tale in Black & White, a conceptual photographic and fashion-based project that looks to “subvert issues of race, class and gender by creating a revisionist history of 1950s America.” Raquel’s project will re-envision the 1950s couture style by using African textiles to reinterpret these images to reflect African American culture and history and to include women of color.
How long have you been in the photography business? Have you always been in fashion photography?
For 10 years, I worked as a fashion editor and stylist and at some point directing others and helping others to achieve their visions isn’t enough. So I picked up my camera and set about realizing my own visions in a more direct way.
Do you specialize in a specific genre or trend in photography?
I come from a fashion background so that always has had an influence on my work, but my projects usually work within conceptual frameworks, from fine art and performance photography to this latest re-invention of a classic fashion language with an Afro-American twist.
How hard is it to get into photography? What does it take to be a fashion photographer?
I do not consider myself a “fashion photographer,” I am thinking about a lot more than just clothes. But even if your goal is to be a fashion photographer, like many businesses the same rules apply. Do the work. Do work you really believe in. And everything will come.
The Fifties: A Tale in Black & White, for example, is a project close to my heart that I have been working to bring to life for the last five years.
Have you photographed celebrities?
In my former life as an editor and stylist, I worked with lots of folks from Kanye West to Outkast. But my work now is less about celebrity and more about thinking about celebrity. Where does it come from, how is it created? I am working with a musician named Roxiny, who will certainly be famous quite soon for example, and building her image from the ground up.
Please tell us about your current project, The Fifties: A Tale in Black & White—what was the inspiration behind the project?
The Fifties: A Tale in Black & White is a series of photographs re-imagining the New Look of the 1950s, the luxury, the sophistication, the elegance; however, I am imagining that movement as if it were the product of the African diaspora. The photographs feature custom-made garments, in printed seersucker, wax print and African lace, as well as West African inspired accessories.
This project is both a rewriting of history to bring our people from the margins to the center of the fashion narrative, and an opportunity to photograph some young black women in a way that is rarely afforded them, even in the most forward -thinking magazines. I thought about myself as a girl, looking for myself in high fashion, and besides the occasional model, I could not. Therefore, I devised this photo project, as a way of retrofitting history, and including myself and all those little girls and women who I was.
In the 1950s and especially during the 1960s, African Americans were not represented in this era of fashion photography. Much of the images of African Americans of the times focused on social and political issues of race and class. With this project, will you be creating a revisionist history of 1950s and ’60s America?
I don’t think these ideas are separate. Actually there is a wonderful quote in Deborah Willis’ Posing Beauty which says, “…black beauty remains a cause without a portfolio…Who can really talk of the folly of beauty when there are still so many other battles to be won? But beauty is also a battle. And the right to be beautiful and to be acknowledged as such whoever you are, wherever you are from is not so much a folly as a human-rights issue. In writing the history of the black experience, did we forget something important? Did we forget about beauty?” Simply put Beauty is political.
Discussing women and style in the ’50s & ’60s, it would seem that couture fashion is still very much sought after and has a lasting, historical effect on fashion—can you explain the reason for its fashion longevity?
I think couture fashion in that era defined the aspirational quality that still is a primary aspect of the modern fashion industry. I used to work as a fashion stylist, and I’m something of nerd, so I know a bit about the history of these things. The 1950s are when fashion as we know it came to be, it was in that postwar boom that middle class ladies could aspire to dress as sophisticates, as movie stars, as Grace Kellys, or Elizabeth Taylors, or perhaps Dorothy Dandridge or Lena Horne, and for those few who could actually afford couture they could imagine what it might have been like to be royalty.
Actually, the sumptuous fabric and the silhouettes of the 18th century were a huge inspiration for Dior’s New Look. The 1950s were a time when designers like Dior and Balenciaga became household names. Hip-hop artists today are still talking about these labels. Obviously, the workmanship and the aesthetic beauty of couture creations then and now are enough to capture the imagination but I think that the aspirational nature of this type of fashion has been a driving force over the years and continues today.
Will you be recreating some of the famous vintage black and white photography scenes by Cecil Beaton—Marilyn Monroe, Bettie Davis, or Katherine Hepburn?
I will definitely be drawing inspiration from famous scenes by Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon; however, the images I will be focusing on recreating are more evocative of the mood of the time and of couture fashion as opposed to a particular iconic celebrity image per se.
Will there be a lot of preparation involved with your project and do you have everything all set to go? Clothing for the shoot? Models?
There have been years of conceptual preparation, and months of concrete preparation involved in this project. From the research on 1950s fashion and history, to the sourcing of vintage couture patterns and African fabric, to the creation of each garment itself, along with all the normal pre-production such as location scouting and model casting.
As of right now, the clothing has been created and the models for the first portion of this work have been cast. However, as I am envisioning this as a long-term project there is always more to do…I will actually be shooting and casting a second portion of the project next month and I am currently casting for that.
What impression would you like for viewers of your work to get out of your project? What do you intend to communicate with your Black & White collection?
As a photographer, I have been disturbed by the increasingly narrow confines of the image of young black women that we see. As an artist I wanted to borrow from the richness and nuance of the couture vocabulary of 1950s fashion to make images that not only addressed the lack of visual representation of blacks in the ’50s fashion narrative but also open a space for discussion and debate of what it means to be a young black woman.
Where will we be able to view the completed project?
The project will take several final forms, including gallery shows and a publication or two. I’m currently looking into recreating a ’50s couture magazine, with articles and adverts. Definitely check my website for updates.
Thank you, Raquel, for the opportunity to discuss your The Fifties: A Tale in Black and White project with you. Please feel free to update us on your progress.
Article first published as Cultural Relevance and Influence in the Arts: An Interview with Photographer Raquel Griffin on Blogcritics.
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