I’m late in marking his passing but I’d bet most people reading this don’t know of Kwame Brathwaite’s work. You should. He didn’t do much work for Creed Taylor, but two of his liner pictures, coincidentally from albums with Hubert Laws, had a big impact on me. Brathwaite album cover pictures and liner photographs were an exemplary picture of modern, beautiful African Americans and the first I saw. He also did so much more and while most most, including me, will remember him for his photographs I have some detail and links to his other work and one uncredited CTI album picture.

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.

New York Times By Alex Williams – April 12, 2023 [1]https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/12/arts/kwame-brathwaite-dead.html (Gift Link)

This (Spotify only) playlist accompanies the exhibition “Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite” and contains a curated selection by the photographer and Kwame S. Brathwaite, his son and director of the Kwame Brathwaite Archive.

I’ve written a lot about the King of Color, Pete Turner. I have folders of information on other photographers Creed commissioned especially Chuck Stewart, Alen MacWeeny and Price Givens, but almost nothing on Kwame Brathwaite. He took two sets of pictures for CTI, both in 1975.

I’d quit an apprenticeship as a newspaper photographer in 1974 at the Hemel Hempstead Gazette. My future belonged in computers. That said, I’ve never stopped being awed by the magic of photography. As a teenager at that time, funk, and in London at the time jazz funk was exploding everywhere. I worked part time at Hearsay Records, a leading black music record store in Hemel’ [2]https://www.britishrecordshoparchive.org/hearsay-records-hemel-hempstead.html.

Its owner, Tony Clifford also ran a market stall at the Sunday market at Wembley Stadium, that was my primary patch. I remember to this day my first CTI 45/single, George Benson’s “Supership”, and my first album, Hubert Laws “The Chicago Theme”. Pete Turner’s cover, and Kwame Brathwaite’s liner picture were a major part of the draw.

Thanks to the ever diligent and detailed CTI historian and liner notes writer, Doug Payne, as well as a confirmation from photographer Alen MacWeeney, I’m able to confirm that this picture from the rear cover of Turrentine’s album “Salt Song” is one by Brathwaite.

The only version of the album this picture is on is the 1982 reissue and is uncredited. The style of the picture, back lit using the venue spot lighting captured with a lense filter was used by Brathwaite for the cover of the George Benson’s “In Concert-Carnegie Hall” [3]https://www.discogs.com/master/58739-George-Benson-Guest-Hubert-Laws-In-Concert-Carnegie-Hall as well as other artists around that time.

The picture came from the same event at Carnegie Hall, if you check the liner credits, Turrentine isn’t listed. The concert wasn’t as you might think, a Benson concert. In fact in was another jazz concert in a series sponsored by New York radio station WRVR and its general manager Robert Orenbach.

Artists in the concert series included Gil Scott-Heron, Charles Earland, Pat Martino, Bobbi Humphrey, Freddie Hubbard, the Crusaders, Norman Connors, Chet Baker & Gerry Mulligan (also recorded and released by CTI), Stan Getz and Jon Lucien [4]https://www.discogs.com/artist/9865-Jon-Lucien and special guests Stanley Turrentine and George Benson [5]Billboard Feb 8, 1975 – Page 22. Ticket sales were so strong that a second show was added. It is said that there are live recordings of the Stanley Turrentine tracks as well. The Turrentine recordings could not be released by CTI as he was by then under contract to Fantasy Records [6]https://www.dougpayne.com/ctid7576.htm.

While Turner’s work appeared on almost exclusively CTI albums, Brathwaite’s primarily didn’t, his work appeared on Blue Note in the early days, and albums by The Fatback Band, The Stylistics and The Jimmy Castor Bunch, among others – Soul and jazz funk royalty. Many of his earliest photographs appeared on albums in the 1960’s under his born name, Ronnie Brathwaite [7]https://www.discogs.com/artist/2164390-Ronnie-Brathwaite.

White County Times, Monticello, Indiana – Thursday August 29th, 1963 [8]reprinted from the Wall St Journal, August 8th

Brathwaite became a photographer almost by accident. Among the many things he was doing in the 1950’s, he saw pictures taken at a club during a concert he’d organized and was inspired to try photography himself. In addition to his now legendary photography, Brathwaite also wrote music reviews for numerous international publications, documenting soul music as it blossomed in the 1970’s. Kwame Brathwaite was also a saxophone player.

Many Africa Americans around the late 1960’s changed their name either during adoption of Islam, as Idris Muhmmad(Leo Morris) had, or during a heightened period of multiethnic pluralism, as Rashaan Roland Kirk did [9]Martin, B. L. (1991). From Negro to Black to African American: The Power of Names and Naming. Political Science Quarterly, 106(1), 83–107. https://doi.org/10.2307/2152175, Ronnie Brathwaite was hence forth Kwame Brathwaite.

In addition to everything documented here and elsewhere, it’s worth also noting that he also donated time and photography to help many black community programs. I recall seeing an awesome set of pictures of Miss Jamaica-USA while living in Queens, NYC circa 1986.

In keeping with my post on the “Jazz And People’s Movement”, I’ve included below a short resume of his work quoted verbatim from the New-York Historical Society introduction to the exhibit of Mr Brathwaite’s work that ended in January of 2023.

Known as the “keeper of the images,” Kwame Brathwaite deployed his photography from the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s as an agent of social change. Born in Brooklyn to a Caribbean American family and raised in the Bronx, Brathwaite traces his artistic and political sensibilities to his youth. After seeing the horrific images of Emmett Till published in Jet magazine in 1955, Brathwaite and his brother Elombe Brath turned to art and political activism, absorbing the ideas of the Jamaican-born activist Marcus Garvey, who promoted a Pan-Africanist vision for Black economic liberation and freedom. Kwame and Elombe founded the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), a collective of artists and creatives that organized jazz concerts in clubs around Harlem and the Bronx. The group also advanced a message of economic empowerment and political consciousness in the Harlem community, with “Think Black, Buy Black” emphasizing the power of self-presentation and style. In the 1960s, Brathwaite and his collective also sought to address how white conceptions of beauty and body image affected Black women. To do so, they popularized the transformative idea “Black Is Beautiful” and founded the Grandassa Models, a modeling troupe of locally cast women who appeared in annual fashion shows at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.

Organized by Aperture, New York and Kwame S. Brathwaite, the exhibition features 40 stunning studio portraits and behind-the-scenes images of Harlem’s artistic community, including Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, as well as dresses worn by the Grandassa Models, offering a long-overdue exploration of Brathwaite’s life and work. The exhibition is coordinated at New-York Historical by Marilyn Satin Kushner, curator of prints, photographs, and architectural collections.

Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite – August 19, 2022 – January 15, 2023 – New-York Historical Society Museum & Library [10]https://www.nyhistory.org/exhibitions/black-is-beautiful-the-photography-of-kwame-brathwaite

Black Is Beautiful poster, with portraits of Brathwaite’s wife, Sikolo, and their daughter, Ndola, pictured in the K, ca. 1970. Designed by Bob Gumbs. Courtesy of the artist and Philip Martin Gallery, Los Angeles [11]the original poster credited Ronnie Brathwaite.

Additional Information

Bronx African American History Project, Fordham University – Interviewee: Kwame Brathwaite, The interview took place May 17, 2002 – Interviewers: Dr. Mark Naison, Maxine Gordon [MP3 Audio Recording | Transcript(pdf)] [12]https://research.library.fordham.edu/baahp_oralhist/182/

Committed To The Image: Contemporary Black Photography – Brooklyn, N.Y. : Brooklyn Museum of Art in association with Merrell. Covers the awesome work of 94 black photographers including both Kwane Brathwaite and Chuck Stewart. [13]https://archive.org/details/committedtoimage0000unse

Updates: April 13th, 2023 – minor tidy-up and rewrites to text, no changes to details, facts. etc.

2 Replies to “Kwame Brathwaite”

  1. Another beautiful post, Mark. Thank you! I had forgotten about Kwame’s contribution to the CTI canon. I am glad for your lovely remembrance. Such a great artist.

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