11 Essential Photobooks for Black History Month

From monographs by Ming Smith and Deana Lawson to compendiums about activism and fashion, here are must-read books that envision Black lives.

Deana Lawson, Oath, 2013

Samuel Fosso, ‘70s Lifestyle, 1975–78
Courtesy the artist and JM.PATRAS/PARIS

As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic (2021)

In 1997, Dr. Kenneth Montague founded the Wedge Collection in Toronto in an effort to acquire and exhibit work by artists of African descent. As We Rise features over one hundred works from the collection, bringing together artists from Canada, the Caribbean, Great Britain, the US, South America, and Africa in a timely exploration of Black identity on both sides of the Atlantic.

From Jamel Shabazz’s definitive street portraits; to Lebohang Kganye’s blurring of self, mother, and family history in South Africa; to J. D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere’s landmark series documenting Nigeria’s rich hairstyle traditions, As We Rise looks at multifaceted ideas of Black life through the lenses of community, identity, and power. As Teju Cole describes in his preface, “Too often in the larger culture, we see images of Black people in attitudes of despair, pain, or brutal isolation. As We Rise gently refuses that. It is not that people are always in an attitude of celebration—no, that would be a reverse but corresponding falsehood—but rather that they are present as human beings, credible, fully engaged in their world.”

Kwame Brathwaite, <em>Model wearing a natural hairstyle, AJASS</em>, Harlem, ca. 1970<br />
Courtesy the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles”>
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Kwame Brathwaite, Model wearing a natural hairstyle, AJASS, Harlem, ca. 1970
Courtesy the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles

Kwame Brathwaite, <em>A school for one of the many modeling groups that had begun to embrace natural hairstyles in the 1960s</em>, ca. 1966″>
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Kwame Brathwaite, A school for one of the many modeling groups that had begun to embrace natural hairstyles in the 1960s, ca. 1966

Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful (2019)

Kwame Brathwaite’s photographs from the 1950s and ’60s transformed how we define Blackness. Using his photography to popularize the slogan “Black Is Beautiful,” Brathwaite challenged mainstream beauty standards of the time that excluded women of color. Born in Brooklyn and part of the second-wave Harlem Renaissance, Brathwaite and his brother Elombe Brath founded the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS) and the Grandassa Models. AJASS was a collective of artists, playwrights, designers, and dancers; Grandassa Models was a modeling agency for Black women. Working with these two organizations, Brathwaite organized fashion shows featuring clothing designed by the models themselves, created stunning portraits of jazz luminaries, and captured behind-the-scenes photographs of the Black arts community, including Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and Miles Davis.

Until recent years, Brathwaite has been under-recognized. This is the first-ever monograph of his work. “To ‘Think Black’ meant not only being politically conscious and concerned with issues facing the Black community,” writes Tanisha C. Ford, “but also reflecting that awareness of self through dress and self-presentation. . . . [They] were the woke set of their generation.”

Ernest Cole, Sometimes check broadens into search of a man’s person and belongings, South Africa, ca. 1960s
© Ernest Cole Family Trust

Ernest Cole: House of Bondage (2022)

First published in 1967, Ernest Cole’s House of Bondage has been lauded as one of the most significant photobooks of the twentieth century, revealing the horrors of apartheid to the world and influencing generations of photographers around the globe.

Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Cole photographed the underbelly of apartheid in South Africa—often at great personal risk. Methodically documenting the daily atrocities and indignities for the Black majority under the apartheid system, Cole pictured its miners, police, hospitals, schools, and more. In 1966 Cole fled South Africa and smuggled out his negatives, becoming a “banned person” and settling in New York. A year later, House of Bondage was published.

Over fifty years later, a new edition of House of Bondage brings this powerful and politically incisive document to a contemporary audience. Retaining Cole’s original writings and photographs, this edition adds unpublished work found in a cache of negatives recently returned to the Ernest Cole Family Trust. It features never-before-seen photographs of Black creative expression and cultural activity taking place under apartheid—recontextualizing this pivotal book for our time.

Deana Lawson, Binky & Tony Forever, 2009
Courtesy the artist; Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago; and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Deana Lawson: An Aperture Monograph (2018)

Over the last decade, Deana Lawson has created a visionary language to describe identities through intimate portraiture and striking accounts of ceremonies and rituals. Using medium- and large-format cameras, Lawson works with models throughout the US, Caribbean, and Africa to construct arresting, highly structured, and deliberately theatrical scenes. Signature to Lawson’s work is an exquisite range of color and attention to detail—from the bedding and furniture in her domestic interiors, to the lush plants and Edenic gardens that serve as dramatic backdrops.

Aperture published the artist’s landmark first publication, Deana Lawson: An Aperture Monograph, in 2018. In 2020, Lawson became the first photographer to be awarded the Hugo Boss Prize. One of the most compelling photographers of her generation, Lawson portrays the personal and the powerful. “Outside a Deana Lawson portrait you might be working three jobs, just keeping your head above water, struggling,” writes Zadie Smith. “But inside her frame you are beautiful, imperious, unbroken, unfallen.”

Collect a limited-edition of Deana Lawson: An Aperture Monograph featuring a special slipcase and custom tipped-in c-print.

Zora J Murff, Kenny at 19, 2013
Courtesy the artist and Webber Gallery, London

Zora J Murff: True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis) (2022)

Zora J Murff’s photographs construct an incisive, autobiographic retelling of the struggles and epiphanies of a young Black artist working to make space for himself and his community.

Since leaving social work to pursue photography over a decade ago, Murff’s work has consistently grappled with the complicit entanglement of the medium in the histories of spectacle, commodification, and race, often contextualizing his own photographs with found and appropriated images and commissioned texts.

True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis) continues this conversation, examining the act of remembering and the politics of self, which Murff describes as “the duality of Black patriotism and the challenges of finding belonging in places not made for me—of creating an affirmation in a moment of crisis as I learn to remake myself in my own image.”

Micaiah Carter, <em>Adeline in Barrettes</em>, 2018<br />
Courtesy the artist”>
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Micaiah Carter, Adeline in Barrettes, 2018
Courtesy the artist

Tyler Mitchell, <em>Untitled (Twins II)</em>, New York, 2017<br />
Courtesy the artist”>
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Tyler Mitchell, Untitled (Twins II), New York, 2017
Courtesy the artist

The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion (2019)

In The New Black Vanguard, curator and critic Antwaun Sargent addresses a radical transformation taking place in fashion and art today. The book highlights the work of fifteen contemporary Black photographers rethinking the possibilities of representation—including Tyler Mitchell, the first Black photographer to shoot a cover story for Vogue; Campbell Addy and Jamal Nxedlana, who have founded digital platforms celebrating Black photographers; and Nadine Ijewere, whose early series title The Misrepresentation of Representation says it all.

From the role of the Black body in media; to cross-pollination between art, fashion, and culture; to the institutional barriers that have historically been an impediment to Black photographers, The New Black Vanguard opens up critical conversations while simultaneously proposing a brilliantly reenvisioned future. “Often in this culture, when we think about the work of Black artists, we almost never think about, How do we celebrate young Black artists? And I wanted to change that,” Sargent states. “I wanted to say that what was happening right now with these very young artists is significant. It has shifted our culture, it has shifted how we think about photography, and it has shifted who gets to shoot images.”

Ryan McGinley, Black Trans History Ball, February 2021<br />
Courtesy the artist”>
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Ryan McGinley, Black Trans History Ball, February 2021
Courtesy the artist

Souls of a Movement, An Honoring of the African Diaspora, February 2021<br />
Courtesy Souls of a Movement (Carlos von der Heyde)”>
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Souls of a Movement, An Honoring of the African Diaspora, February 2021
Courtesy Souls of a Movement (Carlos von der Heyde)

Revolution Is Love: A Year of Black Trans Liberation (2022)

In June 2020, activists Qween Jean and Joela Rivera returned to the historic Stonewall Inn—site of the 1969 riots that launched the modern gay rights movement—where they initiated weekly actions known thereafter as the Stonewall Protests. Brought together by the urgent need to center Black trans and queer lives within the Black Lives Matter movement, over the following year, thousands of people across communities and social movements gathered in solidarity, resistance, and communion.

Gathering work by twenty‑four photographers from within the movement, Revolution Is Love is the potent and celebratory visual record of a contemporary activist movement in New York City—and a moving testament to the enduring power of photography in activism, advocacy, and community. As Qween Jean reflects in an interview from the volume: “We have been at every moment of history, we’ve been at every fight, at every social justice movement. We’ve existed.”

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, <em>Darkroom Mirror (_2070386)</em>, 2017<br />
Courtesy the artist and DOCUMENT, Chicago, team (gallery inc.), New York, and Vielmetter, Los Angeles “>
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Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Darkroom Mirror (_2070386), 2017
Courtesy the artist and DOCUMENT, Chicago, team (gallery inc.), New York, and Vielmetter, Los Angeles

Paul Mpagi Sepuya, <em>Mirror Study for Joe (_2010980)</em>, 2017″>
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Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Mirror Study for Joe (_2010980), 2017

Paul Mpagi Sepuya (2020)

Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s studio portraits challenge and deconstruct traditional portraiture by way of collage, layering, fragmentation, and mirror imagery, all through the perspective of a Black, queer gaze. Although the creation of artist books has been a long-standing part of his practice, this 2020 volume is the first widely released publication of Sepuya’s work.

For Sepuya, photography is a tactile and communal enterprise, with his multilayered scenes coming together through groups of his friends, fellow artists, collaborators, and himself. Moving away from the slick artifice of contemporary portraiture, Sepuya’s frames are filled with the human elements of picture-taking, from fingerprints and smudges to dust on mirrored surfaces. Sepuya pushes this even further by directly inviting us to look inside the studio setting—while also considering the construction of subjectivity.

Shikeith, O’ My Body, Make of Me Always a Man Who Questions!, 2020
Courtesy the artist

Shikeith: Notes towards Becoming a Spill (2022)

In his striking studio portraits, multimedia artist Shikeith envisions his Black male subjects as they inhabit various states of meditation, prayer, and ecstasy. In work he describes as “leaning into the uncanny,” Shikeith’s subjects’ faces and bodies glisten with sweat (and tears) in a manifestation and evidence of desire. This ecstasy is what critic Antwaun Sargent proclaims “an ideal, a warm depiction that insists on concrete possibility for another world.” Brought together in the artist’s first monograph, Notes towards Becoming a Spill redefines the idea of sacred space and positions a queer ethic identified by its investment in vulnerability, tenderness, and joy.

Ming Smith, Sun Ra Space II, New York, 1978
Ming Smith, Sun Ra Space II, New York, 1978
Courtesy the artist

Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph (2020)

Ming Smith’s poetic and experimental images are icons of twentieth-century African American life. Smith began experimenting with photography as early as kindergarten, when she made pictures of her classmates with her parents’ Brownie camera. She went on to attend Howard University, Washington, DC, where she continued her practice, and eventually moved to New York in the 1970s. Smith supported herself by modeling for agencies like Wilhelmina, and around the same time, joined the Kamoinge Workshop. In 1979, Smith became the first Black woman photographer to have work acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Throughout her career, Smith has photographed various forms of Black community and creativity—from mothers and children having an ordinary day in Harlem, to her photographic tribute to playwright August Wilson, to the majestic performance style of Sun Ra. Her trademark lyricism, distinctively blurred silhouettes, and dynamic street scenes established Smith as one of the greatest artist-photographers working today. As Yxta Maya Murray writes, “Smith brings her passion and intellect to a remarkable body of photography that belongs in the canon for its wealth of ideas and its preservation of Black women’s lives during an age, much like today, when nothing could be taken for granted.”

Aperture 223: “Vision & Justice” (Summer 2016)

The art historian, curator, and writer Sarah Elizabeth Lewis guest edited Aperture’s summer 2016 issue, “Vision & Justice,” a monumental edition of the magazine that sparked a national conversation on the role of photography in constructions of citizenship, race, and justice. The issue features a wide span of photographic projects by artists such as Awol Erizku, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Lyle Ashton Harris, Deana Lawson, Jamel Shabazz, Hank Willis Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, and Deborah Willis; alongside essays by some of the most influential voices in American culture, including Vince Aletti, Teju Cole, and Claudia Rankine. “Understanding the relationship of race and the quest for full citizenship in this country requires an advanced state of visual literacy, particularly during periods of turmoil,” writes Lewis, “but America’s progress would require pictures because of the images they conjure in one’s imagination.”

In 2019, Aperture worked with Lewis to create a free civic curriculum to accompany the issue, featuring thirty-one texts on topics ranging from civic space and memorials to the intersections of race, technology, and justice. Taking its conceptual inspiration from Frederick Douglass’s landmark Civil War speech “Pictures and Progress” (1861)—about the transformative power of pictures to create a new vision for the nation—the curriculum addresses both the historical roots and contemporary realities of visual literacy for race and justice in American civic life.