Kwame Brathwaite, the photographer and activist whose work gave a visual identity to the “Black is Beautiful” movement, died on April 1. He was 85.
The news was shared by his son, Kwame Brathwaite, Jr., in an Instagram post. “I am deeply saddened to share that my Baba, the patriarch of our family, our rock and my hero has transitioned,” Brathwaite, Jr. wrote. “Thank you for your love and support during this difficult time.”
Over the course of his prolific, 60-year-year, Brathwaite photographed jazz giants, elite athletes, and models. Powerful Black figures almost always starred in his pictures, and he depicted them in ways that celebrated their pride and style without conforming to white, Eurocentric standards of beauty.
“Kwame’s photos and work at that time were culturally game-changing and illuminated a new direction for Black Americans that had a global effect,” graffiti pioneer Fab 5 Freddy told Artnet News.
Brathwaite didn’t coin the movement’s name, and he wasn’t its architect. But the photographer “concretized the notion of Black is beautiful” in a visual way,” said Isolde Brielmaier, a curator, scholar, and deputy director of the New Museum. “He is the one who, in so many ways, made that phrase.”
Despite his accomplishments, it wasn’t until the final decade of Brathwaite’s life that he received recognition from the institutional art world. The first major retrospective of his work, organized by the Aperture Foundation, opened in 2019 at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, and has since traveled to numerous institutions in the country, including the Detroit Art Institute, the New York Historical Society, and the University of Alabama.
Both the show and its concomitant monograph—also Brathwaite’s first—were titled after the grassroots movement for racial equality with which he is now synonymous: “Black is Beautiful.”
“His images, carefully calibrated to reflect a moment precisely, made black beautiful for those who lived in the 1960s, and continue to do so for a generation today who might only now be discovering his work,” the author and historian Tanisha C. Ford wrote in 2017.
“He saw his images as a tool to create space in a really loud, bold way for Black people and Black presence,” Brielmaier said. “He both created culture and captured it.”
The child of Barbadian immigrants, Brathwaite was born in Brooklyn on New Years Day, 1938. His family moved to Harlem, then the South Bronx, and he later attended the prestigious School of Industrial Art (now called the High School of Art and Design).
In 1956, Brathwaite and his brother, Elombe Brath, founded the African Jazz and Art Society and Studios (AJASS), a social group and creative hub organized around music, art, dance, and politics. That same year, he witnessed a friend taking flash-less photos in a dark jazz club—a technique that opened his mind to the creative possibilities of the medium.
Brathwaite took up his own photography practice shortly thereafter, carrying his camera to jazz clubs as the genre’s mid-century masters rolled through town. John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk were among the subjects he trained his lens on during this time.
In the early 1960s, Brathwaite began photographing various young Black women he referred to as Grandassa Models. Many appeared in a Harlem fashion show titled “Naturally ’62,” which Brathwaite and other AJASS community members founded in 1962. The show was held biannually through 1973, and sporadically for an additional 19 years after that, according to a 2021 profile of the artist.
“We said, ‘We’ve got to do something to make the women feel proud of their hair, proud of their blackness,’” Brathwaite told Ford.
By the 1970s, Brathwaite had expanded his focus, photographing pop music stars such as Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder, as well as boxing legends Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
Brathwaite continued to take assignments until late in life. His last commission came in 2018, when he photographed artist Joanne Petit-Frère for The New Yorker.
“There’s a history of black people and black culture, of black activism and black life that can be traced throughout his many images,” Brielmaier said. “It’s all there in his bodies of work, which I think is pretty profound.”