Written by Joseph Montebello
Photographed by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe and Carol Friedman
For Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe taking pictures isn’t just about capturing an image; she believes that photography has the potential to bring social change through awareness. And she has channeled that belief into her amazing photographs and books.
Moutoussamy-Ashe grew up on the south side of Chicago and was exposed to art and design through her parents.
“My mother was an interior designer and my father was an architect,” she explained. “My two older brothers always went off to basketball camp in the summer and I was jealous that I couldn’t. So, at the age of eight, I was sent off to take art classes. So at the age of eight, I got on a bus that stopped a block from my house in Chicago. My mother would walk me to the bus every Saturday morning. She knew the bus driver that would take me — it was a public bus — to the Art Institute, and drop me off in front. He’d watch me go up the steps and enter a whole new world. Those visits encouraged my creative thinking and helped me develop a creative eye.”
Her artistic bent led her to New York City where she enrolled at Cooper Union, but her interest in photography began at an earlier time.
“I became interested through a childhood friend of mine named Frank Stewart, who is now the official photographer for Jazz at Lincoln Center,” Moutoussamy-Ashe said. “He spent his high school years in Chicago and I met him when I was about 15. When he was about 17, he introduced me to the art of making photographs. He told me I really had to try it. We had photographs at home by Gordon Parks and I was familiar with Roy DeCarava’s work. I was completely enchanted by the works of both these great photographers. And while I loved to paint and draw I really wasn’t very good at it. But there was something about the process of seeing through the lens of a camera that began to open up a whole new world for me.”
Moutoussamy-Ashe took the second semester of her junior year at Cooper Union and did an independent study in West Africa, which only reaffirmed her love for photography and its ability to provoke emotion and to present a story as no words could ever convey.
“I left in January and spent six months in West Africa, and went to Cape Coast in Ghana, where the trans-Atlantic slave trade took place. When I got there, on either side of it were these fishing villages. While exploring them, I was profoundly impacted by looking out of that porthole to the ocean and looking west, and thinking about that journey from Africa to America. There were fishing villages on the west coast of Africa, and there were similar villages and communities on the southeast coast of the United States. I drew right then, a relationship between the two and wanted to investigate the route slave ships traveled to the southeast coast of the United States. The slave trade brought African traditions together with a rather isolated American experience.” And thus her extraordinary chronicle of life in a small community in South Carolina, known as Daufuskie Island, was born.
Armed with her portfolio of African photographs, Moutoussamy-Ashe pursued a job at NBC that a friend had mentioned to her. She went in and saw the art director of the graphics department, and got hired on the basis of the work she had produced in Africa.
“I got a job as a graphic artist and did the pictures and images that were displayed behind the newsmen on camera. Eventually I worked my way into getting photography assignments,” she said. “After being on staff for three or four months, then I got laid off. Then I was rehired during my senior year at Cooper Union and stayed there for two years.”
In October 1976 Moutoussamy-Ashe was sent to take photographs at the United Negro College Fund tennis event where she met her future husband Arthur Ashe. They were married in 1977, two years before Ashe ended his extraordinary career. Together they pursued their artistic interests, she advancing her photographic endeavors and he championed African-Americans in sports and wrote his own books. In 1987 their daughter Camera was born. Nineteen months later Ashe was diagnosed as HIV positive, which he had contracted from a blood transfusion while undergoing a heart procedure.
During the months of his illness, Moutoussamy-Ashe chronicled the time shared between Ashe and his daughter in a photographic journal entitled “Daddy and Me.”
“What you will see here is a portrait of Arthur and Camera as they care for each other on bad days and play together as father and daughter on good days,” she wrote in her introduction. The book is a testament to the couple’s dignity and grace during a horrific time and their desire to have their child, at age six, understand what was happening, to cherish those last moments with her father and to look beyond the sadness.
It was Moutoussamy-Ashe’s third book, preceded by the first edition of “Daufuskie Island” and “Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers and Intimate Portraits,” a catalog of her 2008 exhibition at the Bill Hodge Gallery. Since then a 25th anniversary edition of “Daufuskie Island” has been published and in 2014, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture obtained the Daufuskie Island collection as part of their permanent collection, recognizing the importance of the Gullah people and their distinguished place in American history.
About the name Camera. Contrary to her daughter’s belief that she had been named after an instrument, Moutoussamy-Ashe explained: “I didn’t name her after an instrument. In French ‘camera’ means ‘room of light. A camera is a box that absorbs light.’”
And that brings us to her obsession with light. “I am inspired and driven by light,” she admitted. “I don’t pick up my camera and say to myself that I should take a particular shot. I pick it up because of my response to the light, the way the light is rendering a particular subject. Artificial light to me doesn’t have the artistic quality of natural light. And to me light is what this whole process is about. Even when I’m looking in the dark I look for the light in the dark, not using a flash or additional lighting. We see something on a table. But when you look at the light that is on that subject, then you really see what is going on.”
She feels as strongly about her camera as well. While she does shoot digitally she misses the days of contact sheets, where one could study the genesis of a particular image and follow its progression.
Moutoussamy-Ashe is passionate about her art and she firmly believes that photography has the potential to bring social change through awareness. Certainly she has proven that with the unforgettable images in “Daufuskie Island.” But she is quick to point out that it is the beholder who ultimately interprets the image.
“We all bring our own baggage to what we see as we look at images. I don’t expect that people will see my images the same or the way I envisioned them. The image needs to articulate the information, whether it is abstract or has heavy social content. I want people to look at my work and ask questions of themselves. That, to me, is successful.”
She recently had a show at Five Points Gallery in Torrington entitled “En Theo: A God Within,” which featured images from Daufuskie Island as well as more recent work.
She also presented a lecture at the Columbia Museum of Art in Columbia, South Carolina that focused on her work on the island.
After Ashe’s death, Moutoussamy-Ashe curated an interactive, experiential exhibit called the Arthur Ashe Learning Center Inspirational Tour, built around the life, legacy and values of this extraordinary man, with the hope that his exemplary life will send a message to visitors that “through education, service and active citizenship, every kid from every walk of life, regardless of origin or resources, can excel and accomplish great things.” The Learning Center is now moving to UCLA where it will be the Arthur Ashe Living Legacy Fund hosted by the college that will set up a scholarship.