Jean Weisinger spent much of the 1990s capturing intimate portraits of revolutionary Black women — Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, and Assata Shakur among them — and impromptu photographs of people she met in her travels across the United States. Almost none of the artist’s work made its way into museum collections or gallery exhibitions, but from the tiny Alice Austen House in Staten Island, Executive Director Victoria Munro has spent the past two and a half years developing Weisinger’s unrevealed photographs and meticulously documenting the histories behind each one of them. Progress Towards Freedom and Love, on view through August 31, showcases Weisinger’s formidable body of portraiture — and finally tells the photographer’s story.
“I absolutely believed in her, and from the few images I had seen, I knew that there was so much more to uncover,” Munro told Hyperallergic. The director first learned about Weisinger while curating a photography exhibition around Audre Lorde — the writer and theorist who, among other pivotal societal contributions, challenged the White-centric and one-takes-all approach of second-wave feminism. Lorde had been one of Weisinger’s subjects, and Munro began a years-long quest to shine a light on the artist.
Taken as a whole, the images of Weisinger, herself a Black lesbian woman, tell the story of activism in the 1990s. The multifaceted movement — aimed at ending the tyranny of capitalism, creating inclusive feminism, stopping HIV/AIDS mortality, advocating for community-focused aid, and more — was largely centered near San Francisco. Weisinger lived in Oakland — in a home she described as having a big porch, Meyer lemon trees, and a vegetable garden — where she would host Sunday brunches for her neighbors and fellow community members. The artist’s interest in the world also extended beyond her own front porch, and Weisinger traveled the country to participate in talks and festivals hosted and attended by people she admired.
Munro began with phone calls to Weisinger, now 70 years old, spending hours on the line as the photographer divulged the stories behind her portraits. Hearing Weisinger talk about these histories was what made Munro want to pursue the project. After over a year on the phone, Munro realized she’d have to travel to Weisinger’s house near San Francisco to finalize the exhibition. Weisinger had been staying with family in Chicago, where she receives treatment for chronic asthma, and flew back to meet Munro.
When the curator arrived, she founds boxes of photographs that had never been developed. Munro held the negatives up to a window to choose what she wanted to include in the show, then brought her selections back to New York to have them scanned and printed. All of the works in the exhibition are from this recent batch, although a few portraits — such as those of Alice Walker and Angela Davis — had been printed and distributed before. Weisinger estimates the trove contains around 250,000 photographs.
“This exhibition only scratches the surface of her vast body of work, which is mostly unprinted,” Munro said. She hopes the exhibition will travel to other museums and that they will take Weisinger’s work into their collections.
Weisinger’s personal portraits stand in stark contrast to the more widely circulated images of her subjects — photojournalists’ snapshots of the women delivering speeches, reading in front of microphones, or engaged in protests. Weisinger rendered thoughtful portraits of Walker and Lorde in deep contemplation, two women who have written about her (Walker wrote a poem for her birthday this year, describing Weisinger as a “Master photographer/Of so many/Brave and beautiful/Sisters”). Weisinger also captured photographs of Barbara Smith, Ntozake Shange, Louise T. Patterson, Ntombi Howell, and Paris Williams, to name just a few of the extraordinary thinkers whose faces line the walls of the Alice Austen House exhibition.
In the museum’s small backroom, the show’s photographs flicker across a screen in a 17-minute slideshow. The soundtrack is a compilation of Munro’s and Weisinger’s phone calls. The photographer speaks slowly: At the other end of the line, she looks at each photograph and narrates both the life story of the subject and the tale of how she arrived behind the camera that day. In one thoughtful self-portrait taken at Alice Walker’s home in northern California, Weisinger explains that her five-year-old grandson Ivory had just pulled a small boat out of the water, and she decided to take a photo of herself journaling, a practice she’s maintained since she was 14.
Weisinger photographed many other activists who were critical to Black feminism and the ongoing struggle for civil rights equality. She met Assata Shakur in Cuba in 1992. The Black Panther and member of the Black Liberation Army was giving a talk, and Weisinger asked to photograph and interview her; Shakur agreed. The resulting portrait is a close-up of the smiling activist, who wears shells in her hair and a shirt that reads “Shakti; Power.” It’s a striking depiction of Shakur’s optimistic self-rendering during her exile in Cuba, and she appears mid-laugh and at ease.
In another striking photograph, Weisinger has captured playwright and activist Imani Harrington at the beach. Harrington, who lives with HIV and has explored the virus in her vast body of work, is depicted with her hair blowing in the wind and a carefree half-smile spreading across her face as Weisinger snaps her photo, her young grandson in tow.
Even as Weisinger manages to render highly personal depictions of her more famous subjects, her real power lies in the photographs of people whose names don’t appear in history books. In 1996, Weisinger traveled to Sistahfest, a Los Angeles festival started in 1990 by the United Lesbians of African Heritage. The artist takes a perfect snapshot — a young woman in a matching two-piece outfit smiles at someone sitting beneath her. In the riser above, another woman sports a full-face grin. The focus of the two women’s attention exists outside the frame, making Weisinger’s encapsulation of the scene’s energy and levity even more impressive. As she looked back at other photographs in preparation for the Alice Austen House exhibition, Weisinger had forgotten where or when she captured the faces of unknown subjects. In one image, she portrays a woman who stares directly at her, appearing confident and poised: Weisinger has granted her the same dignity she affords subjects speaking on a stage. In examining the photographer’s vast oeuvre, it becomes exceedingly clear that Weisinger took care to create an atmosphere of comfort from the other side of the camera.
In the forward to the exhibition catalogue, Weisinger, who was unavailable for an interview, explains in a May 26 note that her health has taken a turn for the better after 18 years of struggling with asthma. She also writes that the recent death of her grandson Ivory, who accompanied her to take so many of her photographs, had made continuing with her practice feel impossible.
“Despite my initial hesitation, [Munro] didn’t — wouldn’t — give up on me,” the photographer writes. “And Ivory’s words ‘get busy living, grandma-ma’ wouldn’t let me sleep.” Weisinger says that through the process of mounting the exhibition, she “fell in love with the sight, the feelings of all those beautiful faces, spirits, and souls who have given me their trust — the ones who I have had the privilege to document.”
Now, Weisinger’s photographs sprawl across two rooms near the Staten Island shore of New York Harbor, delicately hung over an old fireplace and the slanted wooden floors of the Alice Austen House. Built in 1690, the museum itself is one of the city’s oldest homes, and its former occupants — lesbian Victorian photographer Alice Austen and her partner Gertrude Tate — imbue the idyllic cottage with a more consequential history. Austen, much like Weisinger, has been left out of surveys of photography and art history. In the permanent galleries — just a few rooms in the back — the museum tells Austen’s story in exquisite detail. It’s the perfect place for Weisinger’s long-overdue show — it has a story, just like her portraits.
This article, part of a series focused on LGBTQ+ artists and art movements, is supported by Swann Auction Galleries. Swann’s upcoming sale “LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History,” featuring works and material by David Wojnarowicz, Keith Haring, Diane Arbus, Peter Hujar, Tom of Finland, and many more will take place on August 17, 2023.