Art: Consuelo Kanaga

Eugenia Bell

In 1915, Consuelo Kanaga—just 21—began writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, but within a couple of years she had picked up a camera and the principles of the paper’s darkroom and began covering everything from the city’s social scene to its stevedore strikes as a photojournalist. Over the years, she befriended Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, and Tina Modotti. But Kanaga—a self-described “non-belonger”— considered herself a footnote to the titans, despite being included in the legendary Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. Kanaga is perhaps best known for her long-term project of recording the lives of African Americans, starting in the 1930s, when she was one of the few white photographers taking artistic portraits of black people, and building to her work during the civil rights movement. In all her work, she mined the ordinary for moments of dignity and hope—as in the unyoked couple here on the chaise longue of her portrait studio, caught unawares from above. Her approach had an almost moral thrust: “When you make a photograph,” she said, “it is very much a picture of your own self.”