A Colossal Interview
Renata Cherlise On Her ‘Black Archives’ Project, the Credibility of Candid Photos, and the Look of Black Joy
April 28, 2023
Despite Leo Tolstoy’s assertion that “all happy families are alike,” as the family photos reveal in Renata Cherlise’s Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life, that’s not exactly true. Some families in the book appear dressed in their finest, while others are captured during casual picnics or trips to the beach. In some photos, family members hug each other closely as they smile for the camera, while others are more candid shots of family life. What is similar in all the photos is Black joy.
Let’s face it: so many of the pictorial stories we see of Black families are ones of grief and trauma, the aftermath of yet another police shooting of an unarmed Black person, for example. Cherlise’s book makes clear that Black families have other potent stories to tell. There are first dates, barbeques, trips to Paris, holidays. There is togetherness, laughter, love. These photos testify—through changing fashion, hairstyles, automobile models, photo types, and other markers of time—that Black families have always been part of history, and our stories, our celebrations, have always been an integral part of the historical record.
I spoke with Cherlise via e-mail about the origins of her love for family photos, her book project, and why she considers snapshots “the most authentic storytelling medium in the written and visual language.”
Shown above is “Fishing, 1980.” All images reprinted with permission from ‘Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life’ by Renata Cherlise, ©2023, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House
Paulette Beete: What’s your origin story? Introduce us to yourself.
Renata Cherlise: My journey as a family archivist and memory worker began as a young girl growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, during the 1980s and ‘90s. Both my father and grandmother were amateur photographers who took great pride and pleasure in curating their own family photo albums.
Before digital photography made it possible to produce and share photos in just seconds, the family album was one of the places where people arranged and showed their personal photographs. While we looked at the photos, they often shared stories about the people in the photographs that helped us begin to piece together our familial lineage.
Spending time with these scenes of everyday life made me feel connected to my ancestors and inspired me to think about photography as a form of individual and collective history. I became interested in images of the Black experience that I had never seen in mainstream media or textbooks—pictures that capture the intimacy, beauty, and nuance of our everyday lives. I became interested in finding more photographs along these lines, and my search for source material led me to start digging through institutional archives. I began creating, posting, and sharing mini photo stories on Tumblr in 2011.
My goal is to honor our shared community and culture while empowering people to create, preserve, and share their own archives.—Renata Cherlise
What began as a passion began to grow, and I started to think about how my hobby might become something more. In 2015, I launched the Black Archives website and Instagram feed to give voice to those stories under-told while providing authentic representation and inspiration. In 2019, I left my corporate banking job to focus on Black Archives full time.
This Valentine’s Day, I published my first book, Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life (Ten Speed Press/Penguin Random House), which brings together a wide array of vernacular photographs of family gatherings, holidays, vacations, and nights on the town drawn from submissions and institutional archives, as well as my own family albums. My goal is to honor our shared community and culture while empowering people to create, preserve, and share their own archives.
Paulette: In your book you write, “I consider snapshots the most authentic storytelling medium in the written and visual language.” Please say more about what you mean by that.
Renata: Snapshot (vernacular) photography has long been considered ephemera by the art world because it is created by everyday people whose identities are largely unknown—whereas I think it is the purest form of photography: a combination of art, artifact, and evidence.
Professional photography tends to be a formalized practice driven by concept, aesthetics, and careerist ambitions, with the artist often lacking deep personal ties to the people in the photograph. Snapshot photography is built upon those very connections, creating a space for informality and intimacy that gives snapshot photography its immediacy, accessibility, and credibility. I also think the fact that these photographs historically are not meant to be seen by anyone outside the inner circle also adds a deeper layer of authenticity to the snapshot.
Snapshot photography is built upon those very connections, creating a space for informality and intimacy that gives snapshot photography its immediacy, accessibility, and credibility.—Renata Cherlise
Paulette: When did you first recognize the power of the family photograph?
Renata: My “aha” moment came one day as a child while playing in my grandmother’s bedroom. I noticed the family Bible on my grandmother’s dresser. This wasn’t an everyday Bible for prayer, and I wasn’t quite sure what it was so I opened it. I thumbed through the first few pages and came across a list of relatives, but I had no idea who anyone was. As I looked down the list, I started to see names I recognized and others I didn’t, and then I saw my name and date of birth.
I was overwhelmed but excited. I asked my grandmother what it meant, and she explained it to me. I felt a strong connection and kinship that has since guided me along my path.
Paulette: How did you conceive of the framing device for the book?
Renata: I organized the chapters around the framework of home: the foundation of the home, the interiors, and exteriors of the home, and after looking at all of the similarities with the photo submissions, I began to sort them into our favorite family hallmarks—like posing with the car, or on the front porch, gathering for family occasions, spiritual practices or just hanging out an having fun—and began to think of the ways photographs can both create a space for visibility and representation in the culture at large, while also being a vessel to preserve and pass down our stories from one generation to the next.
Paulette: Two words that reoccur when you talk about family photographs that I don’t think we usually think of in regards to them are “archive” and “curate.” Can you please talk about what those words mean to you in the lens of this project and in family life in general?
Renata: I began to think about the ideas of “archive” and “curation” (although I didn’t have the words) when I began noticing the distinctions between my grandmother and father’s approach to both photography and photo albums.
My father was our designated photographer, and he was devoted to it. His camera of choice was a Nikon, and he organized the photographs by themes. My grandmother, on the other hand, loved the ease of the Polaroid, which gave her instant prints. She wrote captions on the white border, noting the names, dates, and occasion, if space permitted, then placed them in her photo album chronologically.
My grandmother favored scenes of celebration, while my father enjoyed photographing those in-between moments of everyday life. I studied their photos and albums with the fascination so many of us have as youth, searching for our identity and our place in the world by reflecting on the journey our families have made and preserved.
When I learned about ideas of “archiving” and “curation,” it was within the context of institutional spaces, but I realized it was much bigger than that. It spoke to what I had witnessed as a child and what I began doing intuitively with my Tumblr blog. Now that I had the language to speak about my vision, I understood it could be applied to both professional and vernacular photography with Black Archives.
Paulette: Can you talk about your view that this project is part of your ancestral work? What does that mean?
Renata: With so much of our histories lost or destroyed, the act of preserving our photographs—as both repositories of memory and evidence that we will not be erased—is my way of honoring our ancestors. In my role as a keeper of stories for both my family and our collective family, I am also a guardian and feel compelled to preserve and share them with the community.
Paulette: Why do you think it is important to hold and make space for these stories, even if the narratives we have are incomplete?
Renata: We have to start somewhere, and we all have a role to play. One of the things that I enjoy most about unearthing and sharing photographs from deep within institutional archives is that, even when there is little to no context available about an image, I am often able to crowdsource information, pulling from shared memories within the Black experience to round out the story. It has been magical to watch this process unfold in real time, with people from all over, eager to participate and help play a part in rebuilding our histories.
Paulette: How do you hope this project changes/challenges the viewer’s relationship to their own family photos?
Renata: Given the impact of ever-evolving technology on photography and the ways in which digitization has disrupted tradition, many people have been left without tangible artifacts of their lives and lineage. I hope the book will inspire people to investigate their own family photos and see that these images are priceless artifacts of our collective history.
Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life is available on Bookshop. Find more from Cherlise on Instagram.