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Place, Culture, and Representation

The Art and Politics of the Harlem Renaissance

Street vs. Documentary Photography and the “Truth”: Documenting the Culture of Harlem

Learning Targets

  • I can identify how details in a photograph may indicate class status.
  • I can describe how architectural details in photographs may have related to street culture.
  • I can explain how street photography can capture the political climate of a movement.
  • I can explain how documentary photography can enhance a political message.
  • I can explain how photography can support both assimilation and nationalistic viewpoints.


Street photography is a form of photography that focuses on people in public spaces. For our purposes, the term “street” refers more to a moment in time rather than a place—a time when women were gaining greater freedom, workers were enjoying more leisure time, and when society began to spend more time outdoors in public settings.

The origins of street photography in the United States can be traced to roughly the same time as the origins of jazz, with both taking a decidedly different, more spontaneous approach to traditional art forms. During the 1930s, as cameras became lighter and more portable, spontaneous photography became possible. In this respect, street photographers could more easily “shoot from the hip,” without the need to set up a tripod or hold the camera to their eye, thus eliminating unwanted attention to the photographer.

Street photography and documentary photography share many similarities; however, there are several important differences. In documentary-style photography, there is typically a predetermined intention to explain a particular social or economic phenomenon. In this way, documentary photography is related to journalism, and is often used to promote social change. Street photography, on the other hand, is not focused on a particular subject or social movement, allowing for more freedom to spontaneously depict scenes as they unfold in public places. In this way, street photography is inspired by the often surprising nature of street life.

The cultural heart and soul of the Harlem Renaissance was located at the intersection of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. There, one could find numerous clubs—such as the Apollo and the Cotton Club—as well as bustling street scenes that included shops, vendors, and apartments. The very architecture—the brownstones—became synonymous with street life and street culture, and of Harlem itself. Here is where much of the street photography of Harlem took place.

Photographers, however, were not the only people to document the daily life of African Americans during this time. Zora Neale Hurston was an African American folklorist, anthropologist, and author. Hurston wrote more than 50 published short stories, plays, and essays. She also wrote four novels; her most well-known being Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston rejected the racial uplift efforts to present African Americans in a way that would appeal to the cultural standards of the white majority. Yet she also asserted her work as distinct from the work of fellow Harlem Renaissance writers she described as the “sobbing school of Negrohood” who portrayed the lives of black people as constantly miserable, downtrodden, and deprived. Instead, Hurston celebrated the rural, southern African American communities as she remembered them from her own childhood “reality” in rural Florida. For example, in the first chapter of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the main character does not realize that she is African American until she sees a photograph of herself.

Hurston had her critics, however. Many readers objected to the representation of African American dialect in Hurston’s novels. Several of her literary contemporaries accused her of creating caricatures of African American culture rooted in an overtly racist tradition. Hurston’s work also did not engage in political issues, unlike the work of other writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Refusing to identify herself solely by her race or gender caused many to question her intentions, especially given that a white patron supported her financially. Some critics questioned whether she was writing to serve her patron or writing to genuinely celebrate her African American culture.

Hurston was not the only person to receive criticism of her views on what “Negrohood” should entail. The Harlem Renaissance was born out of a tumultuous period in American history. As the Great Northern Migration was occurring, and African American WWI veterans were returning home to hostile white crowds, the residents of Harlem saw this as a time to redefine themselves in light of the current political and social context. There was, however, disagreement on just what that definition should look like.

W. E. B. Du Bois, a scholar and co-founder of the NAACP, argued for full civil rights for blacks and increased political representation, which he believed would be brought about by the African American intellectual and artistic elite. He referred to this group as “the Talented Tenth,” and believed that, through their art, whites would see blacks more as equals. The Crisis, the journal of the NAACP and edited by Du Bois, published the work of many young African American writers, such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.

Du Bois used the term “the Talented Tenth” to describe the likelihood of one in ten black Americans becoming leaders of their race in the world, mainly through education and the arts. Du Bois believed that blacks needed to achieve a classical education to be able to reach their full potential, as opposed to the industrial education promoted by the Atlanta Compromise, endorsed by Booker T. Washington and some white philanthropists.

Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican-born political leader, publisher, and journalist, was also a proponent of civil rights for blacks. Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association. As opposed to Du Bois’ concept of assimilation, the UNIA identified itself as an organization that encouraged the celebration of African culture. Many of the hopes of economic, social, and political progress that African Americans had held during World War I had been dashed by racially motivated violence in 1919. In the wake of lynching and race riots all over the country, many African Americans gravitated toward Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement, which encouraged those of African descent to return to the African homelands of their ancestors. “The Negro World” was the journal of the UNIA, and was published weekly as a way to express the ideas of the organization.

In 1924, the UNIA hosted an opening parade for their annual convention. It began outside the UNIA headquarters on West 135th Street, and went uptown as far as 145th and downtown as far as 125th Street, taking it beyond the boundaries of black residence into white areas. Government officials from Liberia and contingents from throughout the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, and Nigeria carried banners and marched alongside bands. These parades attracted large numbers of spectators, as well as photographers.

Begin the Activity

Part 1
Hand out copies of the images (7032, 7043, 7046, 7051, 7067, 7068, 7087, 7088, 7089, 7090, 7091, 7092) or project them, and ask students to describe what they see. Working independently or in small groups, have students take notes on what they notice. Have students identify the types of objects/clothing or other context clues present in both photos. What do those photos tell the viewer about social class?

Questions to Consider

  • What does the clothing worn by people in the photographs suggest about social class and/or social aspirations?
  • What do architectural details in the photos suggest about street life in Harlem? Think of the role that large front “stoops” might play in the socialization of the residents.
  • Why would a street photographer want to depict the mundane act of day-to-day living? Is it really “mundane”?
  • Do you think the aim of street photography is to advance a certain cultural agenda?
  • What are the pros and cons of assimilation into another culture? How do these photographs depict assimilation?
  • What are the pros and cons of maintaining a strong nationalist stance? How do these photographs depict nationalism?

Part 2

Hand out copies of the images (7001, 7025, 7075, 7082, 7083) or project them. Ask students to describe what they see. Ask students to compare these more documentary-style photographs to the photographs in Part 1. How do they differ? How are they similar? Ask students to draw a Venn diagram showing overlap and distinctions.

Extension Activities

Literature Connection

Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, was often criticized for appearing to “idealize” African American life—for not writing about racial protest and anger. In partnership with the language arts teacher, have students read Hurston’s novel (or excerpts), and consider if African American life was, in fact, idealized, or portrayed honestly. Have students consider the author’s point of view. Why might Hurston have wanted to write in this particular style? Who might her audience have been?

Writing Connection

In Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, many of her characters speak in dialect. Either independently or in pairs, ask students to write a poem or short story in which they focus on their own use of informal dialect. Have students consider who their audience for such writing could be and why.

Photography Connection

Have students document the daily life of the neighborhood surrounding their school. Ask them how they would photograph the neighborhood differently for either street or documentary photography purposes. Students could even create a “sensory web” where they brainstorm the tastes, scents, textures, sounds, and sights of their neighborhood. Contact a local business in the neighborhood as a potential venue to display student work, or host a “gallery night” at your school where student work is displayed.

next: The Power and Purpose of Poetry and Visual Art

Grade Level

Middle & High School


English Language Arts
Social Studies
U.S. History


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