Q&A with Professor of Photography and Kamoinge Inc. Member, Gerald Cyrus

I love your Stormy Monday series, and for Black History Month, I’d like to touch upon the significance of Jazz as an art form. Could you tell me why you think why Harlem went from a haven and a mecca for black culture and how, a little later, it’s changed? What role did Jazz play? How do you feel Langston Hughes would feel if he was alive today? I don’t mean to paint Harlem as a place where there isn’t the same beauty, but I feel that it must have been better before and that our people were stripped of their pride systematically. Do you know which contemporary photographers you feel are capturing the beauty, regality, and community of blackness of Harlem, other than yourself, as well as James Van Der Zee?

Harlem has changed because the forces of economics dictate what happens or doesn’t happen in cities like New York. There was always a lot of untapped potential in Harlem, and finally somebody decided to take advantage of classic properties that were relatively low-priced. And those somebodies in this country are invariably white, and so you have black people being displaced.

© Gerald Cyrus

Jazz has historically played a major role in the culture of Harlem. Some of the most famous jazz clubs (such as Minton’s Playhouse) were based there, and countless musicians have been residents. When I moved there in the early 1990’s, there were several neighborhood bars and lounges where live music was featured nightly with no cover charge. Almost all of those places are gone now, replaced by condos and upscale restaurants and bars. I moved out of Harlem in 1997 and live in Philadelphia now, but I’m always amazed at the changes that have taken place since then. 

© Gerald Cyrus

Some contemporary photographers to check out who have worked in Harlem: Beuford Smith, Jules Allen, Shawn Walker, Ming Smith, Russell Frederick, Dawoud Bey, Jaime Permuth, Isaac Diggs, Andre Wagner. 

I also wanted to know which camera you use and what, out of your newest photographs, are your favorites. Could you also tell me why you like to shoot in black and white? 

I have several cameras that I use depending on the project. The work I shot in Harlem nightclubs was done with a Leica 35mm camera; most of the work I shot on the streets was done with either the Leica or a Rolleiflex medium format camera. Also, all the work done at that time was shot on film. 

I prefer the black-and-white aesthetic because of the tonalities I can exploit, and because it focuses the viewer’s attention on the underlining meanings of the image. 

© Gerald Cyrus

Could you also tell me if your art is political? What would you tell the black youth of today, is there still hope? Will this country ever become a land of the free, as one of the nation’s most prized hymns exclaims. 

I don’t consider my work overtly political, but I think anytime you portray black people in an intimate and insightful manner, you’re going against the history of negative portrayals that have defined the media in this country. 

I would tell black youth today to stay focused on their goals and to work toward them day by day. Everything doesn’t come at once, and you have to be persistent and determined to succeed. 

I don’t know if America will ever reach its lofty proclamations of freedom and equality for all (certainly not in my lifetime), but I have to believe there’s hope that we’ll eventually get there. 

© Gerald Cyrus

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