Graduation Year


Date of Submission


Document Type

Open Access Senior Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts


Intercollegiate Media Studies

Reader 1

Andrew Long

Reader 2

James Morrison

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© 2021 Robert A C Cain Jr


This thesis addresses the multiple ways in which the medium of photography, and specifically the portrait photograph, enabled African Americans to visually contest degrading portrayals of blackness and reclaim stolen agency in producing depictions of self throughout the media and popular culture. The societal reverberations of camera technology on the emergence of black photographers like Richard Samuel Roberts, James VanDerZee, and Gordon Parks are analyzed, and the images taken by these artists are read against a history of racist stereotypes, reconsidered for their aesthetic contributions to the art world, and interpreted within the tradition of African American photography. A brief historical introduction on the development and perpetuation of myths about blackness is included to contextualize the preexisting visual environment in which photography emerged, outlining the obstacles this new media served to overcome. Since photographs are multidimensional, metaphorically speaking, the portrait is fragmented into its constituent parts and then positioned within selected subgenres of portraiture such as documentary, fashion, and snapshot in order to assess the overall impact of these photographic styles on African American self image. Discussing photography exhibitions based on the technological history of portraiture and its cultural influence on shaping black identities helps resolve lingering uncertainties about the relevancy of images and past methods of exhibiting blackness, especially in historically white spaces such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the International Center of Photography. A conclusion is reached after examining the burden of representation placed on black artists, as defined by Kobena Mercer, and exploring some techniques employed by black photographers and art critics to reposition the black body within a new aesthetic framework. A personal note on the current and future state of black photographic representation is finally and carefully considered.


A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Digital Media Studies Program in the Department of Intercollegiate Media Studies at Claremont McKenna College, a member of the Claremont Colleges Consortium.