Optimism and faith are the qualities acclaimed photojournalist Eli Reed continually cites in discussions of both his work and his beliefs. Reed has never shied away from controversy, and his photos include compelling examples of inequality, poverty, brutality, and deprivation. But ultimately Reed wants people to see resilency in his subjectsa refusal to be overwhelmed by circumstances, and a determination to succeed.
“I’m trying in my work to reflect optimism and show that there’s a lot more to black life in America than just pathos and problems,” Reed said during a recent interview. “I hope in my photography to show a people that have depth, spirit, and complexity; people should see that there’s much more involved in the daily lives of African-Americans than is usually presented and depicted by the mainstream media.”
“Eli Reed: Black in America,” an exhibition of more than 60 stunning, often spectacular photos, is now showing at Tennessee State University’s Hiram Van Gordon Gallery. It continues through Nov. 3, offering a condensed portrait of material also available in Reed’s current book Black in America (W.W. Norton). Both the exhibit and book feature examples of Reed’s work that have been spotlighted in such magazines as National Geographic, Life, Time, Fortune, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated, as well as in newspapers like The New York Times, the London Times, and the San Francisco Examiner.
Reed was the first African-American to be elected to membership in the Magnum Photo Agency cooperative in 1988, and his photographs formed the core for the celebrated NBC documentary America’s Children, Poorest in the Land of Plenty, narrated by Maya Angelou. But he prefers to spend more time praising and citing the work of othersparticularly Gordon Parks Jr., whom he calls his primary inspiration, and photographer Donald Greenhouse.
“I was running the streets in ’69 and ’70 and wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do,” Reed remembers. “Donald Greenhouse helped me realize that photography was my outlet; he enabled me to see that the work, rather than the ego of the person behind the camera, was the most important thing. Gordon Parks Jr. has so much courage; to accomplish the things he accomplished during a time when he had almost no encouragement and was always pushing the envelope, he’s in my view the greatest.”
Reed, who was born in Linden, N.J., calls his childhood a period of “shoe-cardboard poverty.” “It’s not something that I dwell on, but it’s true that we certainly didn’t have very much in terms of material things,” he recalls. “I think that growing up that way helps you understand the importance of the spirit, and of believing in yourself. It’s also the reason why I’ve never gotten caught up in superficial things; you know what you’re there for, and what you want to say.”
Reed’s life changed forever when he took his first photo as a 10-year-old; it was a shot of his mother at Christmas. Reed bought a second-hand Yashica twin-lens reflex upon graduation from high school and began assembling a collection of black-and-white photos. He studied art at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts, where he began to develop his specialty, the photo essay. He also became interested in documentary and film work, and he subsequently worked on such projects as “Gettin’ Out,” a look at New York gangs, which was shown at a film festival in Japan held by the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. Another of his photo essays chronicled the turbulent turf and political wars in Brooklyn between African-Americans and Hassidic Jews.
The Van Gordon Gallery’s “Black in America” exhibit offers vast evidence of the variety, texture, and vitality of this nation’s African-American communities. Reed’s photos are often simple yet stunning single pictorials; his subjects range from octogenarians in Ohio to small children playing near abandoned buildings in New York City to high-profile figures such as Minister Louis Farrakhan. There are also complex, dynamic group shots: The panoramic portrait of the Million Man March graphically reaffirms that event’s large attendance and its impact.
Reed conspicuously avoids sensationalism, even when focusing on such memorable events as the Los Angeles riots or the killing of African-American teenager Yusuf Hawkins in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood. But his photos don’t just convey frustration, heartbreak, and rage; they also present celebration, joy, and affirmation. There are also entertaining behind-the-scenes portraits that catch the likes of former heavyweight contender Tim Witherspoon in conversation or actor Glenn Turman at his ranch trying to catch a gopher.
By neither exaggerating nor ignoring the problems plaguing the inner cities, Reed’s work packs more punch when it does spotlight gang members or moments of conflict. He doesn’t try to deny the existence of pain and pathos, nor does he try to rationalize it; at the same time, this is simply one element of his work, and certainly not the most important. No one who encounters this exhibit will leave with a one-dimensional view of African-American life or culture.
Given the breadth of Reed’s work, it’s no surprise that his photographic skills have been utilized by some of the nation’s top film directors. He worked with John Singleton on Poetic Justice and Rosewood, doing cast shots and stills; he considers Singleton “a fine director” whose skills are still growing and expanding. “It’s too bad the industry didn’t provide the support for Rosewood that they have for other films showing African-Americans in less positive lights,” Reed observes.
Robert Altman’s jazz epic Kansas City also includes several Reed stills in both black-and-white and in color. “That was truly a fantastic experience,” Reed says. “Altman captured the look, feel, and pace of that era, and those musicians, and he wanted me to communicate the kind of artistry and excellence these musicians displayed on- and offstage. Unfortunately, that was another film that didn’t get anywhere near the distribution or exposure that it deserved.”
Reed’s next film project is the forthcoming The Jackal, the cast of which includes Sidney Poitier. “It’s amazing to see people like Poitier, who are in their 60s, running around doing their own stunts and not even seeming winded,” Reed marvels. “Plus, he has such an incredible perspective on life and the world.”
Photography remains Eli Reed’s first love, however, and anyone anxious to see a diverse and honest presentation of African-American life and culture should view “Black in America” while it remains at TSU. Like Reed’s book, the exhibit is a welcome alternative to the prevalent views about where African-Americans have been and where they’re going.
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