New Bedford native Anthony Barboza is considered to be one of the most prominent and important Black photographers in modern American history. So when he returns to the city to sign copies of his new book, “Eye Dreaming”, he will be living proof that a youth spent in New Bedford can produce something valuable and impactful for the world.
Barboza will be signing copies of “Eye Dreaming” (produced in conjunction with the New Bedford Historical Society) at the New Bedford Art Museum on Saturday, May 6, from 3 to 5 p.m. The event is free and open to the public, while the cost of the book is $40. The downtown museum is located at 608 Pleasant St.
After creating images for more than 60 years, Barboza says his concept of “Eye Dreaming” is something familiar to many musicians, artists and athletes — the notion of “flow” being experienced in the moment, a “meditation-like” state while immersed in one’s craft.
As a graduate of Roosevelt Junior High and New Bedford High School, a 19-year-old Barboza embarked on a journey to New York City, where he became the youngest member of the all-Black Kamoinge group and was introduced to photography. After a three-year stint in Florida with the Navy, he returned to Manhattan, relying on his photography skills to provide for his wife and daughter. Largely self-taught, Barboza sought to portray and celebrate the African American experience through his lens, doing work in a variety of photographic areas, including commercial and advertising, surrealism and fine art. He would soon establish a reputation for himself by doing shoots of Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes and supermodel Pat Evans. His work appeared in Essence magazine and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Eventually Barboza’s resume would grow significantly to include artists, athletes, actors and fashion models in magazines and newspapers, on album covers, movie posters, and advertisements around the world, all of which is captured in this extensive new book.
Published by the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles, “Eye Dreaming” is a 184-page collection of more than 200 images from throughout Barboza’s career, including an essay on his life, and an intimate interview with the artist.
“Anthony is an inspiration to our community. He went through our public school system with a lot of support from the Cape Verdean and African American community. We are proud of his work,” says Lee Blake, president of the New Bedford Historical Society. “He’s a nationally important figure, and we need to have individuals like him who can chronicle the importance of the Cape Verdean and African American footprint in this country. He has taken pictures and photographs of many of our most important moments of the Black arts movement over the last 50 years.”
“Anthony’s work is superb,” says Suzanne de Vegh, executive director of the New Bedford Art Museum. “What makes him so special is this direct personal quality, there’s an intimacy in his portraits. I feel like I’m meeting that individual in an unguarded moment. I feel like the veil is lifted and I’m really meeting that person. That’s rare and unusual.”
Today the 78-year-old Barboza lives in Westbury, N.Y., with his wife Laura Carrington, who is an alum of the soap opera, “General Hospital,” and the lead role in Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello” video. They have three children.
New Bedford Light: What was your initial interest in photography?
Anthony Barboza: What I realized after I got out of high school was that I was really interested in images. When I was in junior high I used to walk home from school and there was a second-hand book store that had a lot of magazines and I would look at Life and Look and I discovered that I really liked photography and images. So that’s what hooked me.
Before I moved to New York City my aunt, Jean Barros of New Bedford, had a New York City phone book. It had a photography school in it, the New York Institute of Photography, and I figured I’d like to go to that school and take some night classes. When I got to New York, my aunt introduced me to Adger Cowens, a member of a new group called the Kamoinge, a group of Black photographers from New York City. I soon realized that the night school classes were only teaching technical things and that I was learning a lot more from the Kamoinge. The Kamoinge photographers would put up photos and criticize them, and I learned a lot about critiquing images. I was allowed into this exclusive group even though I didn’t have a camera or any photographs, and I would eventually become the president of the group from 2005 to 2016. It is the oldest nonprofit group in the history of photography. It’s continued to this day.
Kamoinge is an African word that means “working together.” I learned about how you use your eye and the feeling that you have when you’re photographing. Every photographer doesn’t have the same personality. I soaked up all of this information. I was the youngest member and I translated the information in a different way than most people would. I learned so much at that young age. We were all on the same path and it was about taking images that put a positive light on us as a people. We would not photograph bums on the street or anything like that. It was always a positive outlook, the beauty of us as a people.
NBL: What is special and unique about the art form of photography for you?
AB: I love the image, whatever it is I’m shooting, it doesn’t matter what it is. I was shy growing up, I was a bookworm. But through photography I learned how to be able to talk to people. I learned that when you’re photographing someone you have to not act like a groupie, you have to do your job. You make them feel comfortable and relaxed.
My personality helped me get a lot of offers. I didn’t have a lot of friends or girlfriends growing up but, boy, did that change. When Halle Berry first started she wanted to go on a date with me. Eartha Kitt wanted me to meet her daughter. It was crazy. I was wondering what was going on here. Laura Dern wanted to take me on her next movie shoot.
Cher wanted to see my portfolio before I shot her and when she saw it she wanted to know why it was all Black people. I went to her house and she sent her hair dresser down to tell me that if she didn’t like the lighting she wasn’t going to do the shoot. I took a Polaroid image of my assistant, and Cher was very happy when she saw it. We shot the whole day. She did anything I wanted. So there’s something about how you present yourself.
When you’re looking at photographs by the same photographer, if you’re experienced in reading photographs, you can tell something about the photographer because it’s really them in the picture as well. What they choose to do, how they crop it, what feeling comes from it and the subjects. You can look in the eyes of the subject and you can feel something. With some photographers it’s not there, it’s blank, so it depends on the personality of the photographer. There are photographers who can’t relate well to people and they turn out to be still-life photographers shooting products.
NBL: What is Eye Dreaming?
AB: Eye Dreaming is a meditation-type form. Even when I’m in the studio and I’m photographing someone and making them feel comfortable, once I start shooting I go into this semi-trance and the only thing I see is the subject. Even if I’m walking the streets it’s the same thing. After so many years of photographing I come up with certain images that I call “eye dreaming” images. Everybody does it, but they don’t realize it. In other words, if someone goes out and shoots something, and they just click and shoot, they don’t think much about it and when it comes to the selection they don’t pick them. But I’ve found that there’s something to those images because they’re reflecting your whole being and how much you’ve learned throughout your life.
NBL: How did the book come about?
AB: In 2015 I did a whole book on the Kamoinge group called Timeless, a book I had been working on for 10 years. I laid it out with the photographs of the group and it was published by Schiffer Publishing in Pennsylvania. The New York Times called it the photo book of the year. Before the book came out one of the members, a past president named Louis Draper, passed away. He’s from Richmond, Virginia, and his sister brought all of his work over to the Virginia Art Museum. When they saw the word Kamoinge they didn’t know what it was about. But when they saw the Timeless book I did, they put things together and they decided to do an exhibit called “Louis Draper and Kamoinge: Working Together” in Virginia. Then it was sold to the Whitney Museum in New York; then it went to the Cincinnati Art Museum; and then to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles where it just finished in 2022. Once the Getty Museum saw the exhibition they looked deeper into my work and asked if they could do a book on my work, and that’s how “Eye Dreaming” came out.
NBL: What kind of progress have you seen throughout your career for Black artists and Black culture?
AB: It’s grown immensely. When I started with Kamoinge we couldn’t get anybody in the museums to look at our work. Even the ones that were right next door practically, like the Museum of Modern Art. They were not interested.
When you bought Ebony magazine in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s all the advertisements were done by white advertising agencies. But when I arrived it was like a trigger — Black advertising agencies started doing ads for Ebony and Essence and some other Black magazines. There were never any Black advertising agencies before that, and that changed. So I came along at the right time for all of that, and I started doing a lot of advertisements as well.
The first real opportunity came with an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 2001 called “Committed To the Image.” It was the first large exhibition of Black photographers in New York City. Since I knew a lot of the Black photographers from all over the country, they would send their portfolios to me at my studio. At that time there were no computers that they could send their work to. That was the beginning of the changes.
Beginning in 1973, I put a book together called the Black Photographers Annual that was published for four years, containing photographs from all across the country, judged by members of the Kamoinge. From those two projects, it brought more attention for Black photographers to enter the mainstream. Now people are paying a lot more attention to Black photographers.
NBL: How have you seen the world of photography grow throughout your career?
AB: Photography has become an art form. When I started it wasn’t. It’s about producing an image. When you take a camera and look at the world there’s a lot of things out there that you could photograph or not. You have to make that decision. It’s the same as any other art form. There is no difference between any of the art forms to me. It’s all how you feel and how you think and what you see.
Sean McCarthy is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The New Bedford Light.
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