Building with Black Archives

Spotlight / Editorial Spotlight
Thomas McGovern
Tristen Norman
Apr 22, 2021
Earlier this month, we announced our partnership with Black Archives, a multimedia platform that brings a spotlight to the Black experience, examines the nuance of Black life and provides insight and inspiration to those seeking to understand the legacies that preceded their own. We were excited to announce this partnership for a variety of reasons, chief among them the opportunity to collaborate with brilliant founder Renata Cherlise. Her story is an impressive, yet slightly unexpected one that we knew we wanted to share the world. I’m thrilled to bring you into a conversation Renata and I had recently about the origins of Black Archives, details about her archival practice and why a partnership with Getty Images will change visual storytelling for the better.
Tristen Norman: Tell me about the origin of Black Archives. How did you get your start?
Renata Cherlise: I officially started Black Archives in 2015 and it was just an expansion of the work that I was doing on Tumblr. I was actually using the platform to blog and just got captivated with photography and telling stories; but that particular platform only allowed you to do so much, so I was looking for ways that I could expand my ideas of how I wanted to delve into storytelling and delve into images and connect all of these stories because there was just so much to share. I created the website [along] with the Instagram account and started off with curated visual narratives: pulling images from digital archives held within different repositories in the state and the school libraries and then weaving them with secondary records – academic papers and other resources – to tell a broader story.

Initially I was interested in documentaries, [but I realized] that I didn't have the resources to create a documentary at this time. [I asked myself] “where do I have access to?” I resorted to the Internet for some of the collections that are already digitized, people who are already doing the work as archivists in that space and just going through those collections and pulling that out, like “hey, these are really cool, and I don't know if the rest of the world has seen this.” For the first year, I’d say that I created about 17 [stories] and I was pushing out 1 to 2 a month. It actually became one of the things that a lot of academic institutions and professors would refer their students to [which] I could see from the analytics [of the site]. I was like “wow, this is important and really helpful.”

TN: Wow, I didn’t realize that you were on your website before you transitioned from Instagram to Tumblr. I always thought it was Tumblr, then Instagram, then the website – that’s such a cool journey.
RC: I like to say the website was the soul of the work [because] that's where I could expand on the storytelling. I knew that it would be important to have the Instagram account, but at the time I really didn't know how to utilize it in the way that I wanted to... to build community around it. It took a while you know, maybe like a year or two in – around 2017 – [to start] actively using the Instagram account so it's still in my eyes fairly new. The website was the originating heartbeat of Black Archives.

TN: Were you always interested in film and photography? Was that your background?
RC: I remember growing up, you know my grandmother always had these photo albums and my cousins and I. We spent so much time at our grandmother's house, especially during the summers, and it was so funny because we would run to our grandmother's house and run straight to the photo albums. It would be the same images that we saw the week before, but we [were] so captivated with seeing ourselves that every time you went there, we wanted to go through. I feel like that was the beginning of photography [for me]. When we got a little older, my parents purchased a video camera and gave us the freedom to record ourselves and document ourselves as teenagers and as kids. Over the last year I've actually digitized quite a bit of those from the late 90s, when we were growing up. It's always been there in the background, [though] I wouldn't say it was at the forefront. I didn't think that I was going to be a photographer, [but] it’s just seeds are planted. Then one day, when I was on Tumblr, I'm like “hey, what am I doing here?” and I just started coming across archives I had never seen. A lot of these institutions were just digitizing their collections and now we had access to all of these photographs, and I just threw myself into it, and so my approach to photography is similar to a photographer in the sense that I study photography in the same ways that photographers do, but my entry point and my approach to sharing is a little bit different.

TN: One of the things I’ve always loved about your page and platform is the commitment to these very intimate, tender depictions of everyday Blackness. I get the feeling of being in an extended family member’s living room taking in the arc of their lives. Archival work is one of those fascinating fields that can spin in so many different directions – why did you choose this approach?
RC: Well, I know myself as an artist – because Black Archives was birthed through an artist’s lens – and so as an artist, there were so many things that I wanted to do while working with archives. I didn't want to just like name one thing and allow that to run its course. My idea behind it was to create this platform where I could kind of move as freely as I could and engage with archives at various levels. Sharing the stories through Instagram, but also on the back end we're working with filmmakers and artists and producers to find and source archival materials, for their stories and their projects. I also love dreaming up new ways to blend stories from the past with the present. I feel creating this umbrella will give me that freedom and flexibility to move around in the space, as I needed to, without imposing those restrictions on myself.
"I love dreaming up new ways to blend stories from the past with the present."
TN: Part of this work is a rewriting, because so much of Black History had been intentionally cast aside. I’d imagine you’ve gotten to uncover so many things that were new to you. What’s been your most surprising find as you’ve done this work?
RC: Probably the stories within the stories, the image itself, they have a story to tell. Especially when we're working with Black photographers and thinking about accessibility and archives. It's important when we come across a Black photographer that we're able to see ourselves through their lens. Also, it's the stories that are in the background that we may not pick up on immediately but are kind of just there. I like to zoom in on those and then pull out pieces of that and connect them to other things. I think that helps with the storytelling so it's always [an] act of uncovering.

TN: I love that too. On Instagram it’s a little bit harder to your point, but when I look at your site and seeing the kind of stories you’re including around that, knowing what’s happening contextually during that time is really fascinating.
RC: Yeah absolutely. I know a lot of times when I share on Instagram, I know so many people who zoom in on every aspect of it. It’s so unfortunate that Instagram doesn't allow for us to show images in all of their glory, but they pick up on all those little things that are so important. [Sometimes] photographs and archives don't come with information. Sometimes they come with a date and sometimes they don't they come with a “circa.” I think we’re able to share that with the community and they’re now able to pick up and offer context and help to guide the story and share a memory or share some of [their] experience.

TN: It’s also exciting to see familiar visual beats across the diaspora. I love watching the reinvention of the classic studio portrait from James Van Der Zee in Harlem, to Malick Sidibe in Mali, to unknown photographers in the Caribbean islands or the United States. What’s your vision for representing Blackness globally?
RC: Black Archives started with the Black American experience, because that's where I am but as the platform has grown it's hard to not realize that it's so much bigger than just America, right? I want to make sure that as I’m uncovering and doing my research, I’m showing all of the places where we connect across the diaspora. It's important to delve into some of these other archives, so that for one, we can see how we are across all the continents. Then [we can see] how blackness moves and how blackness travels, how things that we do here, things that we do in the South are similar to someone [Black] wherever, that they're able to find something within that that's familiar. And so, I think overall it's just a matter of just showing us, showing us throughout the years, showing us throughout the continent, showing us as our full selves.

TN: While the most visible part of your platform gets its life on Instagram, one thing that many people may not realize is where this sort of deep archival work makes the most difference – media partners, films, museums, other institutions, things like that. What does your work look like behind the scenes?
RC: I get a lot of requests and inquiries through the website from people. Maybe they are working with an institution, maybe they're embarking on some sort of archival project, where they would like to get me involved and help them source and license imagery. That's one aspect of what I do through Black Archives, but I also get a lot of students, a lot of graduate students, a lot of undergrad students, who are thinking about working in this space. They’re taking the academic approach and then also wondering what lies beyond that once they graduate. I’ll [also] get requests from people who are looking to write their thesis on me – not necessarily me, but the work that I’m doing – which is incredible. Making sure that I take time out to be there for those students as much as I can, that's another thing I work through. Also, media partners, publications, and filmmakers who are looking to create stories, I mean it's an ongoing thing.
TN: This brings us nicely to your relationship with Getty Images. Why were you interested in this collaboration?
RC: I have always been interested in collaboration. For what‑ 10 years in the making? Getty’s archives are insane. There's just a massive collection of archival images and I was just always so fascinated by it and it's always been that dream partnership like, “Wow, I just wish that people would let me get in your archives it would be so cool!” There’s always been this running like a joke within myself. It’s always been there. I signed with CAA the end of last year and they were asking me “What do you want? What is your vision? Who is your dream partnership?” and I was like Getty. It’s just a dream come true. I'm just glad that I’m in a position where you guys are open to allowing me to work through your archives and pull out and resurface these images. Not only that, but also work towards some other initiatives you know where we can bring the community in. I'm excited for all of the things to come.

TN: What are you most excited to tackle with our archives this year?
RC: We do the everyday black life, which is great [and] those are some of my personal favorites, just the everyday moments, you know that we can all kind of relate to. There are also those iconic moments, those giants that we kind of stand on the shoulders of. I anticipate that [it] will be exciting going through those and not necessarily sharing the same story but finding other stories that we can uncover when we're going through the archives. But Black photographers… I mean at the core of Black Archives, I share photographs from so many different people, but I think for this first year I’d really like to work with finding and uncovering Black stories told through a Black lens, so that we can give them their due and show just how important it is for us to be in our own communities and document our own stories. That's one of the things I’m most excited about. The first story that we're working on is the Raymond Boyd story which is a Chicago‑based photographer who documented R&B and Hip‑Hop [in the] late 80s, mid‑90s. When I came across this collection and realized that he had over 10,000 images through Getty I was just so overwhelmed with excitement I can't even contain it. Having a conversation with him and listening to him go through his archive and just recall what those moments like he just took those images, when it's clearly been 20, 30 years? It's been a lesson for me and that’s what keeps me going. I’m glad we get to share that story. I'm so excited and I just think that there's so much work to do, of course, but you know I’m down for the challenge.
"It's just a matter of just showing us, showing us throughout the years, showing us throughout the continent, showing us as our full selves."
TN: Where do you see Black Archives in the future?
RC: That’s a good question. I think the work that I'm doing now with Black Archives helps inform the future. When we're able to share images through Instagram it acts as the inspiration to people – at least that's what I hear. People who are thinking about photography or who are in photography realize how important it is to do the work that they're doing within their communities, but also making sure that they're taking the necessary steps to preserve those images and preserve those archives. As long as I continue to work in this space in the present and we have that visibility, we’ll always be able to have something to pull from as we get to the future, as we work through the future. In order for us to do work in the future, we have to have people on the ground, doing work right now. I can't wait until after things start opening back up and we can get back into the communities and work with everyday people to help them get their archives digitized, so that we can work towards helping them preserve their memories and their family treasures.

All in all, there's just so much work to do and I'm so glad that I have a platform, that not only I am able to work but as we continue to scale and grow that we're able to bring other people into the space. One of the biggest things is I always want people to know – from people who have who are following me through Tumblr and joined me on the Instagram platform and in other capacities – I always want them to understand that no matter how big the growth is, we’re still committed to what we were doing day one.
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