Book Review: Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life by Renata Cherlise
“This book is a refuge as it shows how photographs have been consumed and shared by family members, churches, libraries, archives, and photographers. In viewing this book, we see interwoven stories about self-fashioning, representation, beauty, politics, and community memorialized through the camera. The photographs presented here create some of the most compelling visual responses to racialized images that objectified Black people and circulated through the history of the photographic medium. This amazing book with its dazzlingly-designed pages reflects the pride and determination of the people who created their own archives.”—Dr. Deborah Willis, author of Posing Beauty in Black American Culture
Renata Cherlise, founder of Black Archives, the online platform that chronicles contemporary Black American life, first fell in love with photography as a young girl paging through family albums.
“Family photo albums are magical, yet familiar,” writes Cherlise, who remembers being captivated as a child seeing pictures of herself, family members, and ancestors lovingly displayed on its pages. “For many they are home. They are spaces to find comfort, strength, and even escape. An album is a place where you are met with faces you know, and perhaps some you come to know—faces that reveal and inspire stories and confessionals…. The family member who is called upon to gather and curate these images is doing their family—and our collective histories—a great service by pulling together the truth of our existence as people.”
Black Archives brings together vernacular photographs made between the 1930s and 1990s of familiar scenes like family gatherings, holidays, vacations, nights on the town, moments of praise and worship, and styling and profiling on the front porch, in uniform, with cars, and among friends. With so much of Black American history lost or destroyed, Cherlise understands the power of family albums to create connections across time and space, and to preserve a shared cultural lineage for future generations. Black Archives begins in the home.
Cherlise’s father Edwin, an amateur photographer who embraced his role as the family historian, used a Nikon to record the pivotal and prosaic moments of their lives with equal aplomb, meticulously curating the photographs with cut-out magazine and newspaper clips to add a touch of pizzazz. Her maternal grandmother’s camera of choice was the Polaroid, the most accessible and affordable option for an older woman living on a fixed income. She carefully captioned the white frames of the instant photos before placing them chronologically inside her album, providing Cherlise with a counterpoint to her father’s more free-flowing approach to collecting the stories of their lives.
Perusing the albums, Cherlise saw her family history unfold before her eyes. Each photograph offered a window into the past, allowing her to experience an intimate encounter that was part of a larger tapestry of the individual and collective family. With her first book, Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life (Ten Speed Press, February 14, 2023), Cherlise returns to her roots, drawing upon her own family albums, as well as those of members of the community and institutional archives, to celebrate the profound and prosaic alike.
Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life
Ten Speed Press, February 14, 2023
Hardcover, 288 Page, 8.5 x 10 inches
Photo Credit: Ten Speed Press/Penguin Random House.
Book Credit: Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life by Renata Cherlise, 2023. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Renata Cherlise is a multidisciplinary, research-based visual artist who uses various mediums to explore themes of identity, family, and culture. Cherlise’s work seamlessly bridges her Southern upbringing with contemporary methodologies in digital and physical spaces while reimagining notions of the Black experience. Her archival project, Black Archives, has evolved from a photo-based website of visual narratives into a collaborative platform featuring archival histories and modern-day stories from across the African diaspora.
Black Archives Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/blackarchives.co/
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