Kwame Brathwaite, 85, Photographer With a Lens on Black Pride, Is Dead

Kwame Brathwaite, a photographer whose visceral, often elegiac pictures of cultural figures like Muhammad Ali and James Brown, along with Black fashion models and ordinary citizens, were hailed as a catalyst of the “Black is beautiful” movement of the 1960s and beyond, died on April 1. He was 85.

His death, in a Manhattan hospital, was confirmed by his son Kwame S. Brathwaite Jr.

As a freelance photojournalist for Black publications like The New York Amsterdam News, The City Sun and Essence magazine, Mr. Brathwaite chronicled the struggles of the civil rights era in his native New York. But he also traveled the world to file dispatches from the front lines in the battle for Pan-African unity.

In 1972, he captured Wattstax, the music festival in Los Angeles that has been called the Black Woodstock, with headliners like the Staples Singers and Isaac Hayes. In 1974, he traveled to Africa to shoot the brutal glory of the heavyweight boxing championship match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. That same year, he accompanied the Jackson 5 on their first trip to Africa.

Tanisha C. Ford, a historian at the University of Delaware, wrote of Mr. Brathwaite in the photography magazine Aperture in 2017, “His images, carefully calibrated to reflect a moment precisely, made Black beautiful for those who lived in the 1960s, and continue to do so for a generation today who might only now be discovering his work.”

An activist as well as an artist, Mr. Brathwaite was not content merely to observe through his camera’s viewfinder the strides that Black America was making. Taking cues from Marcus Garvey, the early 20th-century Black nationalist leader, he helped found, with his older brother Elombe Brath, the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios in 1956, when he was only 18.

The organization, which promoted concerts in jazz caldrons like Smalls’ Paradise in Harlem and fostered other Black cultural ventures in the neighborhood, was explicitly political, banding together the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement, led by Carlos A. Cooks, a disciple of Garvey’s, while also fighting for Black liberation in South Africa and other causes.

In 1962, the two brothers took another step toward merging Afrocentric politics with Black aesthetics, helping to found Grandassa Models. A collective of New York artists and activists, it promoted music, art and fashion of African heritage as well as the distinctive beauty of Black models, who displayed a wide variety of skin tones and features and wore a natural Afro hairstyle, as opposed to processed, often straightened, hairstyles borrowed from white culture or imposed by it.

Such efforts came together on Jan. 28, 1962, when the African Jazz-Art Society held a fashion show featuring music, dance and spoken-word performances at Purple Manor, a nightclub on 125th Street in Harlem. The name said it all: Naturally ’62: The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Extravaganza Designed to Restore Our Racial Pride and Standards.

The show, enlivened by a house band led by the luminary jazz drummer Max Roach, proved so successful that it became a biannual event and a showcase for Black fashion designers. It was also a celebration of Black culture as well as a critique of Eurocentric standards often centered on images of lighter-skinned Black Americans that were prevalent in popular culture at the time. As a result, Naturally was boundary-pushing enough to cause a stir, even within the Black community.

“There was lots of controversy because we were protesting how, in Ebony magazine, you couldn’t find an ebony girl,” Mr. Brathwaite told Dr. Ford in the Aperture article.

Gilbert Ronald Brathwaite was born on Jan. 1, 1938, in what he often called “the People’s Republic of Brooklyn.” He was the youngest of three sons of Cecil and Margaret (Maloney) Brathwaite, immigrants from Barbados. His father was a tailor who came to own several dry-cleaning businesses.

Mr. Brathwaite adopted the name Kwame in the early 1960s, a tribute to Kwame Nkrumah, the first leader of post-colonial Ghana.

The family moved to Harlem when Mr. Brathwaite was a child, before settling in the South Bronx. A standout student, he attended the School of Industrial Art (now the High School of Art and Design) in Manhattan. He was mulling a career in graphic design when, at 17, he saw a searing image that would change the course of his life.

The photograph was of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old from Chicago who had been tortured and killed by white men while visiting relatives in Mississippi, supposedly for flirting with a white woman. Emmett’s mother’s decision to display this horror to the world — the photo, by David Jackson, was first published in Jet magazine — was a watershed moment for the civil rights movement and demonstrated to Mr. Brathwaite that photography could have a profound political impact.

Before long, he was honing his craft, toting his Hasselblad medium-format camera into the smoky jazz clubs of the city. In August 1959, he trained his lens on the biggest names in jazz — among them Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis — at the Randall’s Island Jazz Festival in Manhattan. The three-night bill read like a jazz hall of fame.

As Adam Bradley noted in a 2021 profile in The New York Times’s T magazine, Mr. Brathwaite was a tenor saxophone player himself and as a photographer had a feel for when to snap the shutter at moments of peak emotion in a performance. As his son, Kwame Jr., put it, “He understood the valleys and the crescendos of music, the improvisation and how that all builds into those moments where a musician is in a zone, similar to an athlete.”

At the same time, Mr. Brathwaite was spending countless hours in the darkroom finding ways to highlight Black faces and features, tinkering, as his son said, with “lighting and exposure times in the printing process to account for the fact that film is not calibrated for darker skin.”

By the early 1970s, Mr. Brathwaite’s love of music led him to expand his horizons to chronicling reggae, soul and pop, a photographic odyssey that lasted decades. As Mr. Bradley wrote, Mr. Brathwaite functioned as a de facto house photographer for the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and over the years he captured memorable images of Bob Marley, Sly Stone, Whitney Houston and many others.

In addition to his son, he is survived by his wife, Sikolo; his brother, John; his daughter, Ndola Carlest; and four grandchildren. He lived in Manhattan.

Starting in 2019, his work was the subject of a traveling exhibition, “Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite.”

In one of Mr. Brathwaite’s final public appearances, at the Museum of the City of New York in Manhattan in 2018, Dr. Ford asked him to summarize his legacy. His answer was direct and to the point: “I love Black people.”

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