For the past couple of weeks, I have been gazing through the photography book, The Majesty of the Black Woman (1971). I was lucky enough to purchase it at an online vintage shop and although it is almost 50 years old, it has resonated deeply within me.
This limited-edition find was the project and labor of love from noted Armenian photographer, Arthur Tcholakian. Over several months, he took these breathtakingly artistic photos of subjects from ages 8 to 99.
There are over 100+ photos inside with some original poetry from the photographer and includes an introduction by novelist and playwright William Saroyan. Many notables fill its pages, including Mahalia Jackson, Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm, Betty Shabazz, Coretta Scott-King, Ruby Dee, Lena Horne, Marian Anderson, Nina Simone, Ethel Waters and more.
During a 1973 interview with the New York Times, Mr. Tcholakian expressed that each woman was “caught in a moment of truth.” He also shared that he withdrew from any other projects for 18 months to complete the work, and although many clients dropped him because of it, he was determined to share the majesty of the black woman.
Keep in mind this was during the late 1960s and early 70s when it was relatively unknown to showcase black beauty in the mainstream format. Of course, we had our benchmark magazines like Ebony and Jet; But the more contemporary cult favorite, ESSENCE, only debuted in 1970 after he already completed his preliminary photos.
After a little digging for more information, I found a 2015 Facebook post, his son Ara Tcholakian posted about his late father and how he was one of the first to showcase black women in this format :
…. “Something that was unthinkable at the time when much persecution was a commonplace for many black Americans let alone black women in general and this type of acknowledgment was considered career-ending. He didn’t care because he truly saw the beauty in black woman and wanted to show the world. Many say ‘Black is Beautiful’ was coined from this publishing since it was the first time in print and pertained to the beauty of black women from a real and artistic point of view. It went on to be on the New York Times bestseller list and elevated my father to celebrity status. I am in the process recreating his work and remastering other negatives with the limited the prints we were able to salvage due to my father’s lack of estate planning. We are going on tour with two very notable black organizations and will be coming to a gallery near you. The more I delved into this project the more I realized what an important piece of Black history this is and look forward to revitalizing the brand my father relentlessly help create.”
Not sure if his son’s vision of releasing the photos is still a project he is working on because I searched for any recent showings of the work to no avail.
If you are inclined to purchase a copy of the rare find – good luck because it out of print and the vintage first editions are skyrocketing all over the net. You will have to shell out anywhere from $300+ for it (I was lucky enough to find mines for a steal).
Below are more photos from the book. I also included the last page because he lists the names of everyone photographed. Enjoy!
ps. My absolute favorites are the photos of Betty Shabazz and Mahalia Jackson. They both inspired my poem “Majesty”..