Kwame Brathwaite, Iconic Photographer Behind The ‘Black Is Beautiful’ Movement, Dies At 85

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Iconic photographer and activist Kwame Brathwaite died on April 2. He was 85. Brathwaite was revered for his striking photos that changed the perception of Black beauty.

His son, Kwame Brathwaite, Jr., announced his father’s passing with an Instagram post.

He wrote, “I am deeply saddened to share that my Baba, the patriarch of our family, our rock and my hero has transitioned. Thank you for your love and support during this difficult time. Kwame Brathwaite January 1, 1938 – April 1, 2023”

Brathwaite was born in Brooklyn, New York but relocated to the South Bronx as a child. He began photography as a hobby in the mid-’50s. He was inspired to transition from graphic design after viewing the photos that Mamie Till allowed Jet to publish of her son, Emmett Till’s dead body in 1955.

According to Art News, Brathwaite began to take the art form seriously after witnessing his friend take pictures without a flash. His first camera, Kodak Tri-X film, ignited his love for photography.

“I just fell in love with the textures, the slight graininess of it,” Brathwaite said of his chosen format.

Through the years, the photographer would develop a technique that made Black skin pop on any canvas or background. His ability to capture the beauty of melanated skin in any form gave birth to the “Black is Beautiful,” aesthetic with which Brathwaite’s images are associated.

He popularized the phrase which had derived from Marcus Garvey and the Pan-Africanist movement of the 1920s.

His awe-inspiring images of Black women and men with natural hair in bold jewelry and outfits challenged the American beauty standard. His artwork created a space for Blackness and celebrating African culture.

Brathwaite’s work was deeply influenced and embedded into the jazz community of the 1960s and 1960s.

He captured everyone from Duke Ellington to Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.

Art News mentioned in the early 1970s, he was what The New York Times once called the “unofficial house photographer for the Apollo Theater.”

He would go on to capture important moments in Black history, such as following The Jackson 5 to Ghana and providing the lens to the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Forman.

 

 

Perhaps some of Brathwaite’s most infamous photos were those of Black women.

He once rumpled feathers, protesting that “he couldn’t find any ebony girls in Ebony magazine.”

One image that stands with his legacy is an image of the side profile of a beautiful Black woman with short natural hair wearing an ornate headpiece. 

The muse, Sikolo, would eventually become his wife and the face of Brathwaite’s work.

His influence has continued to be seen in pop culture and entertainment, especially in the music industry.

Rihanna’s 2019 Fenty Beauty campaign paid homage to the innovator, depicting the beauty of Black people in every form.

In an interview with Vogue, the singer said, “When I was coming up with the concept for this release, we were just digging and digging and we came up with these images—they made me feel they were relevant to what we are doing right now.”