Response: “A True Picture of Black Skin” by Teju Cole


Roy DeCarava
Photograph by Roy DeCarava


“A True Picture of Black Skin”

By Teju Cole, Random House 2016 from Known and Strange Things


Before reading these selections, I focused on the various sources the author used while creating this work. I was truly blown away by the different points Cole explored with this topic. Let’s review some of Cole’s assertions:


He covers historical content and the use of imagery-dealing with how photographers capture a moment of time while allowing us to envision the inner soul of the people photographed. This introductory paragraph was pretty basic to set the mood and understanding of the piece. But then, the author’s emotional response to the first sentence of the second paragraph, allowed me to be pulled into the story. I want to understand what image left him “short of breath.” Then, he goes on to describe the image and the historical context. Cole then gives a short retrospective view of Roy DeCarava’s work and life.


Later, Cole focuses on the reasons why he photographs black life. The next section of the work was something I hadn’t thought I would learn about- the “Shirley Card.” Nevertheless, it became the most important and prevalent part of the story for me.


The technology of the camera has been such a hindrance to black people because it was made and calibrated for white people. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by that. This brought to mind when Crayola removed the “skin” color crayon and Pantyhose that was called “Nude” as a color- which in both cases referred to white people.


Next, Cole reveals that DeCarava was innovative during the development process as he manipulated the imagery. After that, Cole establishes connections with other artists and even reviews how others were influenced directly by the work of DeCarava. The other turning point to this story is Cole’s reference to linguistic- this is another key element to discuss how the word “opacity” is considered and used. He challenges how people stereotype others and all those thoughts muddy perceptions of the individual.


Lastly, Cole provides a direct quote from the artist, which concludes all the points mentioned above. Generally, I enjoy being able to see the work being discussed, but thankfully the work was not included in this story. I waited until I read the whole section until I looked up the work. I knew I would get lost in it. And I, am riveted by the darkness of the work.

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