Legendary photographer Kwame Brathwaite of ‘Black is Beautiful’ has passed away at age 85

The pioneering activist and trailblazing photographer whose work helped propagate the “Black is Beautiful” movement of the 1960s, was born on January 1, 1938, to immigrants from Barbados who lived in Brooklyn, New York. The family later moved to Harlem and eventually settled in South Bronx, where he attended the School of industrial art (Now the High School of Art and Design).

Kwame Braithwaite, whose works have remained the subject of increasing interest from curators, historians, and collectors, died on April 1, 2023, at age 85. His son Kwame Brathwaite, Jr. announced his demise via an Instagram post, “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.”

Black Is Beautiful

According to The Art Newspaper, Kwame noted two moments that drew him to photography – in August 1955, when 17-year-old Kwame encountered David Jackson’s photo of brutalized Emmett Till in an open casket, and in 1956 when he (Kwame Brathwaite) saw one of his school friends capturing images in a dimly light club without a flash.

“Everyone knows the phrase “Black is beautiful,” but very few have heard of the man who helped to popularize it. Brooklyn-born black photographer, Kwame Brathwaite, lived most of his life behind the camera, devoted to capturing the lives of others on film. Spending much of the 1960s in his tiny darkroom in Harlem, he perfected a processing technique that made black skin pop in photographs, with a life and energy as complex as that decade.

Known by friends and comrades as the “Keeper of the Images,” Brathwaite logged thousands of hours in the darkroom, often dipping his fingers into harsh developing chemicals. His labor reflected his deep commitment to black freedom and radical cultural production. With every dip, measurement of solution, and timing of exposure, Brathwaite styled blackness to perfection.

He co-founded the African Jazz Art Society and Studios (AJASS) with his brother, Elombe. By the early 1960s, using photography and AJASS as a platform, he began to push back against the Eurocentric beauty standards, using the Grandassa Models – young Black women whom he photographed, celebrated, and accentuated in photographs; thus helping define the “Black is Beautiful movement.

Black is Beautiful

AJASS organized “Naturally ‘62” – a 1962 fashion show in a Harlem club known as the Purple Manor, featuring the Grandassa models, which ran for three decades until 1992. He also got married in 1966 to Sikolo – one of the Grandassa Models.

By the 1970s Kwame shifted focus to other forms of popular Black acts, photographing many notable Black musicians. In 1974, he traveled to Africa alongside the Jackson Five to cover the music group’s tour and photograph the historic “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in the area known today as the Democratic Republic of Congo. He also captured many beautiful images of Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Bob Marley, and other music icons.

In subsequent decades, he continued developing his craft, exploring more opportunities, and promoting the Black essence through his camera. Kwame joined the Philip Martin Gallery roster in Los Angeles and continued his career until his retirement in 2018. His health began deteriorating in 2021 until he died in April 2023. His latest exhibition, “Kwame Brathwaite: Things Well Worth Waiting For,” is currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago until July 24.

For more information, visit www.kwamebrathwaite.com and www.grandassamodels.com.