Picks and Pans Review: Songs of My People: African Americans: a Self-Portrait

updated 05/04/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/04/1992 01:00AM

Edited by Eric Easter, D. Michael Cheers and Dudley M. Brooks

The, more pictures there are in the world, the less we seem to see of it. Visual pileup blocks our view of whatever lies beyond the standard imagery. Black Americans can sense the problem any time they glimpse themselves in rap videos, sitcoms and the shallow reflecting pool of the evening news—where's the rest of the picture?

A good part of it is in this collection of black-and-white images by 50 African-American photographers who took part last year in a project to document black life from the inside. Provided with airfare, film and carte blanche, they came back with some adroit photo essays on the very settings and circumstances of African-American life. Celebrated faces—the late great Miles Davis; Washington, D.C., Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon; Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—appear here as the most prominent links in a human chain that winds its way through the fields of a Mississippi farm family and the operating room of a Baltimore surgeon.

The book has some blind spots. It shortchanges the prosaic doings of suburban life and detours around the gay black community. But it tells you with uncommon clarity how poor women get by on an island off the coast of South Carolina—with patience and bravery—and how the time passes—slowly—when you're out of a job in East St. Louis. The poet W.H. Auden wrote that "poetry makes nothing happen." Not so. The visual poetry in Songs gently corrects our vision. And that's something special. (Little, Brown, $24.95)

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