In Memory...

 


 

1939 ~ May 26, 2000

 

Roland Charles’ work captures rarely documented aspects of African American life, offering positive, beautiful and true images of black experiences in and around Los Angeles. Throughout his life he tirelessly campaigned to generate a better understanding and appreciation of the African American community, that he felt to have been so long marginalized and misrepresented in the photographic tradition. Both a photographer and a curator, Charles founded Black Photographers of California, a non-profit organization, and ran the influential Black Gallery in the Crenshaw district.  


Roland Charles was born in in Bobtown, Louisiana – a small town outside New Orleans founded by his great grandfather, Robert Celestin. He was raised by his grandparents as an only child. Growing up he was eager to see the world beyond Bobtown and immediately after graduating from high school joined the Air Force. During his service he was stationed in France, where he not only became a fluent in the language, but also became a championship boxer with the Force. He returned to the United States to attend the Southern University in Louisiana, before moving to Los Angeles in 1961.  


In the early 60s Charles found work in the aerospace industry, a vocation he pursued for eight years. Subject to racial discrimination in the workplace, Charles decided to leave and pursue his growing love of photography. Although initially self-taught, Charles attended photography classes at UCLA and USC to hone his talents. His passion for the medium bloomed into a successful freelance career that brought him into contact with the entertainment industry. In the 70s he shot the first album cover for Babyface and many other covers for notable artists such as Earth, Wind and Fire. 


As Charles’ disgust with traditional art’s overt disregard for African American photographers grew, it became the impetus for Black Photographers of California. Through this non-profit arts educational organization, Charles hoped to both present and preserve the photography of established and emerging photographers of color. Two years later, he founded The Black Gallery that provided exhibition space in the Crenshaw district. Charles’ vision for the gallery was insightful and it proved to be an essential and unique facility for artists needing a place to exhibit their work or improve their photographic skills. 


Charles not only transformed the lives of the artists he touched, but also the popular misconceptions of black life in Los Angeles. He explained in an interview with The Los Angeles Times that “the media primarily focuses on the negative aspects – crime and violence – without any understanding of the community, of people that are hard working and honest, and our image was suffering as a result.” It was of particular importance to Charles – as a resident of the media capital of the world himself – to provide a truer representation of Black living and culture in his work. Without such action, Charles feared the perpetuation of false stereotypes concerning Black life in the photographic media and beyond would continue unopposed into the future.


As a result, Charles developed the idea of for Life in the Day of Black LA: The Way We See It. The exhibition, a joint project with UCLA’s Center for African American Studies, showed more than a hundred photographs taken by Charles and nine other Black photographers. The exhibition was shown at several locations throughout Los Angeles in the early 90s, before traveling to Europe and the successful publication of its book. Life in the Day of Black L.A. was a unique attempt to redress the negative imagery of black people that disseminates from Hollywood and bombards viewers throughout the world. As Charles himself stated, “We have – like all other minorities – become victims of its manipulation, be it deliberate or unintentional. Without the power to oversee the depictions of ourselves, we become half-formed, half-truths in the minds of most.” Throughout his career Charles sought to displace these myths through a personal look into the lives of Black “Angelinos” across the socio-economic spectrum, telling their story in a “truer” manner and celebrating aspects of their lives that had long been ignored in popular media. The exhibit, encompassing the works of ten LA based African American photographers, also sought make long-overdue acknowledgement and celebration of the talents of LA’s black photographers. A number of the works featured in the exhibition come from this remarkable collection.   


You can find Roland’s work published in many art books and magazines.  Among them are:  Reflections in Black:  A History of Black Photographers, 1840- Present ( a Smithsonian project, a college text book published by W.W. Norton & company titled Picturing Texts,  a one-of-a-kind book published by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture titled Standing in the Need of Prayer:  A Celebration of Black Prayer and most recently in a book by Professor Paul Von Blum of UCLA’s African American Studies Department and published by the Center for African American Studies at UCLA, titled Resistance, Dignity, and Pride:  African American Artist in Los Angeles


On May 26, 2000, he died at the age of 61.  Roland Charles’ photography stands as a testimony to the life, experiences and social consciousness of the black community. His photographs record the struggle for the true representation, the preservation and respect that African American culture deserves in modern world.