Critical Mass Top 50: Not One African American / by Ron Cowie

The photographers chosen for the top 50 deserve their success. Inclusion in this select group is the result of a lot of work, thought and money to create and market their bodies of work. Many of the portfolios take on important social issues with a compassionate, activist eye. Congratulations to those who are members of the Critical Mass 2015.  

However, while looking at the top 50 photographers, I couldn’t help noticing there isn’t a single African American photographer on the list. 

Of the fifty, there are a few non-white photographers, plenty of non-white people being photographed, but no African American photographers themselves. The definition of critical mass is “The minimum amount of fissile material needed to maintain a nuclear chain reaction,” and it doesn’t seem right to not have a single black photographer in the mix. 

So, why are no African-American photographers in this collection? Here are a few possible answers:

1.     They just didn’t enter.

2.     The one’s who entered weren’t good enough to be chosen.

3.     The fine art photo world is just as troubled by institutional racism as any other organization in the United States.

4.     There aren’t many African American photo curators.

5.     African Americans are vastly underrepresented in every facet of the arts except jazz, rap, and R&B music That’s only because THEY INVENTED THOSE ARTS.

6.     Some of the above.

7.     All of the above.

I don’t have an issue with Photolucida. They aren't what's wrong and a strong case can be made that they do more right for equal access than most. It’s the entire fine art photo community needing to be taken to task. We need to make more opportunities for African American artists. We need to make a focused effort in this regard and we need to do it now. It's that simple.

The photo world today reminds me of that famous scene in Animal House where the Omega Fraternity pretends to be welcoming Kent and Larry ("A Wimp and a Blimp") but walk them over to the corner with “Mohammad, Jugdish, Sydney and Clayton”. 

"Animal House" has the Omegas hosting a meet and greet, shuffling Pinto and Flounder off to the corner with the other "undesirables" - the ethnic and disability cliches. 


A good curator is someone who can look both  see the universality and individuality in a body of work. They are true experts in the field. Curators help us understand and make sense of what artists are doing and thinking. In the ambient image culture we now live in, this has never been more important. However, curators are human and bring to the table their own values and social filters. This is not a bad thing except in the fact that most photo curators today look the same.  

By my count, there are 208 Photo Lucida Critical Mass Jurors and only one of them is African American.  His name is Charles Guice. To have over 200 very intelligent jurors for a photo competition is amazing. The roster is very impressive and represents a wide variety of tastes and speciality. The fact that less than 1% of these jurors is African American speaks to a larger issue. In full disclosure, I didn't google every name and check faces. If there are more, accept my apology and let me know so I can make the correction.

So, I have more questions:

1.     Does the art world need some form of affirmative action?

2.     What would that look like?

3.     Why aren’t as many African Americans becoming curators at prestigious museums founded and supported by rich white people?

4.     Did I just answer my own question?

Now, the last piece I wrote about this issue introduced me to a very active population of African American photographers and scholars. It isn’t that they don’t exist but they aren’t included in the larger conversation. The issue of race in America doesn’t have a simple solution. Earnest white privilege (on full display right here) needs direct its energy to support African American and persons of color in the arts. A lot has been done but a lot more is called for. The current state is only appears equal and equitable if you aren't looking very hard.