"The artistic image is not intended to represent the thing itself, but, rather, the reality of the force the thing contains."
— James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name
The force is strong throughout Nichelle Gainer's Vintage Black Glamour, a carefully curated collection — packed with historical sketches and political commentary — of photographs spanning nearly a century of black beauty and style.
Vintage Black Glamour began with a visit to Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Gainer was researching a novel about black beauty contestants in the 1950s; leafing through magazines like Jet, Tan, Hue and Our World, she was surprised to see young African-American women getting the same breathless media coverage as today's stars. "I knew about Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne, but who knew that there were so many other Negro starlets nipping at their heels?" she writes.
Inspired by these photos — both Dandridge and Horne get their due — as well as the remarkable lives of two of her aunts, model Mildred Taylor and performer Margaret Tynes, Gainer began in January 2011 to compile the images (and just as importantly, the stories) on a Tumblr called Vintage Black Glamour.
Now out in book form, Vintage Black Glamour is divided into ten sections ranging from "Tall, Tan & Terrific" to "Foxy Mamas & Disco Queens." In each section, Gainer — expertly blending black and white photos alongside color — places the unfamiliar beside the famous, making sure to grant each their due. For example, in the chapter on "Scandalous Glamour," the feline Eartha Kitt prowls alongside Bricktop, the American-born performer and entrepreneur of an eponymous Parisian nightclub, male impersonator Gladys Bentley and Acquanetta, who during her Hollywood sojourn claimed to be a Wyoming-born member of the Arapaho tribe (but was actually Mildred Davenport from Norristown, Penn!).
The photo selections are often canny and thought-provoking. Instead of a glammed-up studio portrait of actress Fredi Washington — brilliant as the housekeeper's daughter Peola in the 1934 film version of Imitation Of Life — Gainer highlights Washington's political activism with a somber shot of her wearing an anti-lynching armband.
Elsewhere, Gainer wittily segues from the fur-wearing Supremes alighting from a plane to the futuristic jumpsuits of Patti Labelle to the 1940s thrift store chic of the Pointer Sisters. In a section on writers, she showcases a pensive Zora Neale Hurston, an enigmatic Lorraine Hansberry with her arms folded in front of a bookcase, and a barefoot Maya Angelou, half-on half off her bed, leaning on a suitcase and lost in a magazine — and each photo perfectly captures the author's writing personality.
Vintage Black Glamour uses elegance as a tool for social commentary: By focusing the personal and professional accomplishments of her subjects, and providing plenty of context, Gainer has turned what could have easily been a bourgeois manifesto into a meaningful project.
And here's yet another reason why Vintage Black Glamour matters: Let's take the case of soprano Matilda Sissieretta Jones. Born in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1868, Jones — also known as the "Black Patti" in comparison to acclaimed Spanish-born soprano Adelina Patti — was the first African-American singer to perform at Carnegie Hall. As Gainer recounts, one reviewer at the time described Jones as "full of Negro blood, but pleasing to look at."
Now compare that with New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley's recent controversial review of How to Get Away With Murder, which included the unfortunate description of series star Viola Davis as menacingly sexy, and "older, darker-skinned and less classically beautiful" than other stars like Kerry Washington and Halle Berry. Two supposedly complimentary reviews separated by over a century — and yet disturbingly, painfully, similar in tone. It's that type of colorstruck attitude Gainer is fighting, with photos celebrating inner and outer beauty in every shade.
Eartha Kitt graces the cover of Vintage Black Glamour, garbed in a shimmering, skintight sleeveless gown, her back to the camera and her hands on her hips as she looks over her right shoulder, directly into the lens. The image is bold and confident, iconic and inviting. Do yourself a favor: Consider yourself honored and accept the invitation.
Harlem-born and Brooklyn-bred, Richard Torres is the author of the novel Freddie's Dead. He has written for many publications including XXL, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and The New York Times.