Southern Illinois University-Carbondale professor of photography Fern Logan has accomplished quite a feat. Her recently published book The Artist Portrait Series: Images of Contemporary African American Artists is a collection of about 60 photographs of noteworthy African-American creatives. She has focused on of a distinguished group of achievers who have probably never before been gathered in one collection, but instead of describing their various artistic outputs, she gives us a single photo of each artist, thereby rendering a collection of single moments, each of which tells a story. Leafing through the book is a pleasure.
Logan has taken photos of the biggies. The elderly Romare Bearden poses in painter's coveralls and a beret. Jacob Lawrence stands on a ladder, supervising the transfer of one of his designs to a mural. Leather-faced Gordon Parks sits before a bank of books, doing his Renaissance-man thing.
Of course, there are more obscure artists here, such as Al Loving, Emma Amos and Manny Hughes. In fact, the book serves as a sort of time capsule, transporting the reader to the New York arts scene of the '80s, where Logan took these photos. The beginning of the book captures established masters such as Bearden and Lawrence, then moves on to other names not so readily recalled. One critic noted the effect of this arrangement, which serves to demonstrate the "emergence of the African-American artists into mainstream art."
Logan says she began working as a graphic designer and landscape photographer and only grudgingly began to photograph people. She explains that she did not gravitate to artists at first: "I had approached the musicians; I thought I wanted to do jazz musicians," she says. "Everybody's done jazz musicians, but I started thinking that's what I wanted, and I found that was very problematic, especially for a black woman. They think you're a groupie."
Her portfolio of images of African-American artists continued to grow, and she soon realized she had a book on her hands. Most publishers did not agree. "Between '85 and '89, I had written to about 50 publishers, and I had 50 letters of rejection," she says. Soon after she came to SIU-Carbondale to teach, she found her champions at SIU Press, and in May the book, which had remained a dormant project for more than a decade, finally became a reality.
We learn, through Logan's accompanying commentaries, about people such as Selma Burke, the African-American woman who sculpted a bas-relief of FDR's head that wound up on the dime. We see printmaker Bob Blackburn standing amid tables, jars of solvent and racks of drying prints in his workshop, looking as workmanlike as an artist in his element can. Photographer Dawoud Bey stares us down confrontationally.
Some subjects seem shy; others look pretentious, happy or pensive -- Logan seems to have cornered them just when they didn't have their art to shield them.