Photographer Cindy Elizabeth trains her lens on Austin’s Black community, on people in celebration: family gatherings or parties in Givens and Rosewood parks, car club meet-ups, the annual Juneteenth Parade.
Elizabeth pairs the intimacy of portraiture with “the decisive moment,” capturing an ephemeral event with an image that represents the essence of the moment, a concept made popular by legendary street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Her ongoing series “Sundays in the Park” combines portraiture and place in a tableau of joy, community and pride.
A father sits his young son on the hood of a car parked amidst others. A teenage boy joins in with a drill team performing in the Juneteenth Parade. Five women pause their park fish fry to playfully pose for Elizabeth’s lens. In a particularly intimate picture, a boy holds his puppy, shyly smiling while a busy community celebration swirls in the background.
“I want to challenge others to recognize the humanity, the essence of the Black residents who have called East Austin home for generations,” Elizabeth says.
Black children are a favorite subject.
“[They] are the one true representation of what freedom is to me,” Elizabeth says. “So often they are not given that basic privilege of just being able to exist as a child. It’s important to showcase their inner light.”
And as she combed through her archive recently, Elizabeth observed something that wasn’t a conscious artistic strategy: she has a lot of images of Black children in the water, in swimming pools or playing in splash pads.
“Going back though my work, I was surprised I had so many,” she says.
In an image from 2015, two children claim the magical space inside a bubble formed by a splash pad fountain. In pictures from Givens Pool, a boy pauses at the edge of the diving pool; in another, a boy leaps off the pool’s edge, his arms outstretched in flight over the water.
“There’s power in it,” Elizabeth says of documenting Black children in water. “It’s a kind of Afro-futurism, a contemporary act of defiance, resilience, happiness and peace.”
A painful legacy of racial segregation and violent strife surrounds America’s history of municipal swimming pools. In the 1960s and 1970s, American cities saw a mass wave of public pool closings and neglect that still impacts equitable access.
In recent decades, in lieu of repairing a city’s old pools or building new ones, municipal governments, including Austin’s, put in splash pads, a cheaper option with less required maintenance and no need for employing lifeguards. And no opportunity to swim — or to learn how to swim.
Past discrimination also continues to shape swimming and drowning rates: nearly 60 percent of Black children can’t swim, almost twice the figure for White children.
“My entire life my mother never got in the water, even though she would take us to the pool,” Elizabeth recalls. “[Learning to swim] was never an opportunity she had, and it was not an opportunity I had.”
Now, reclamation of water is a freedom “to engage with water in ways that our ancestors may have not been able to,” she says. “It’s a freedom stripped away from us because of the trauma that we carry for generations. Water is the way we came over here by force. We were banned from public swimming pools. Then our pools were closed or under-resourced.”
In 2019, Elizabeth collaborated on Forklift Danceworks “Givens Swims” project, documenting members of the Givens community to create “Allegiance,” an installation of flags bearing their portraits. And she captured her interviews with her subjects in a series of short videos.
When COVID-19 came, Elizabeth decided to use the unexpected shutdown to take a step back from the franticness, the pressure many artists feel to always be creating something new. She put her camera down, stopped taking it on her daily walks. “I decided it was a time for reflection — a time for me to download things, instead of always uploading them.”
She spent time observing, not mediating what she saw through a lens.
“I wasn’t going to protests or any public gatherings,” she says. “And there wasn’t a Juneteenth or a Pride parade. But I started noticing how businesses, churches, educational institutions were using their signage to communicate in response to the pandemic.”
Signage and its messaging has always been of keen creative and visual interest to Elizabeth, and 2020 has proved fertile: a pandemic and public health crisis, a national election, the census, the Black Lives Matter movement. Billboards and marquees offer messages on public health. Yard signs express political and social views. Schools wish their graduates virtual congratulations.
“Signs communicate to us, but they also start communicating to each other about what’s happening right now,” she says.
So, after a few months pause, she picked up her camera again and embarked on a new series “Signs of the Times.”
Elizabeth, 33, was born and raised in East Austin, inheriting a love of photographs from her mother.
“One of her first cameras was a Polaroid, and she was always ready to get a photograph of me,” Elizabeth recalls.
In the pre- smartphone days, disposable film cameras became Elizabeth’s introduction into making photographs.
One of only a dozen Black girls in her grade level in the West Austin middle school she was assigned to Elizabeth took a disposable camera on field trips or other special days. “I wanted to document our time as a group. That was important to do in an environment that didn’t want to cherish or nurture us. We nurtured and cherished ourselves. We built a community for ourselves.”
“It’s been a trajectory of my work ever since — documenting Black community and Black joy, resiliency and peace. We’re deserving of compassion and of love. And I want the rest of the world to see that as well.”
These days, Elizabeth uses a Nikon DSLR with a full-frame body for her black-and-white street portrait work. She has a Nikon film camera too for some projects, and a Fujifilm digital point-and-shoot is her everyday, take-wherever-she goes camera.
And no, she doesn’t often use the camera feature on her iPhone. It’s too limiting, she finds.
More frequently than not, black and white is Elizabeth’s preferred photographic palette. With faces and bodies centering her images, the use of monochrome diminishes distractions, she finds. People stand out first. “What I’m trying to highlight with my lens is the essence of a person,” she says.
Using black and white also fixes her artistic practice in the history of photography, particularly the work of artists and work she admires: Gordon Parks and his New Deal-era Farm Security Administration pictures, and Roy DeCarava who chronicled everyday life in Harlem not as a sociological subject but as human experience, emotive and joyous.
“I like to think that I’m shooting in the tradition that they did,” said Elizabeth.
Last year she began studying DeCarava’s later work and his experiments with making photographic portraiture abstract. In turn, she began a new series, “The Abstract life of East Austin.”
“East Austin feels like a place of such abstractness now, whereas it used to be some place very clear, some place that made sense to me,” Elizabeth says. “Now it’s a place of confusion and transition.”
In July, Elizabeth served on the curatorial panel for “Suffrage Now,” a photography exhibition held online by the Elisabet Ney Museum. Currently, she’s working on a photojournalism assignment, documenting an Austin business as it weathers the pandemic. And her next collaboration with Forklift involves images of people connected to the legacy of Downs Field, once home to Austin’s Negro Baseball League teams. At an Oct. 3 virtual event, she’ll unveil a new series of those photographs for an online exhibition.
As she choose images for this photo essay, Elizabeth says she wanted to show “the moments of celebration and the moments between celebration.”
“What these photographs show is the freedom of Black bodies in celebration — gathering in their communal space with friends or family, and Black people celebrating each other,” she says.
“It’s something that I will continue to photograph for the entirety of my career.”
“Hopefully whenever there can be another Juneteenth Parade all the Black folks won’t have been cleared out [of Austin] and there’s actually a parade.
“I plan to be there.”
Cindy Elizabeth at cindyelizabeth.com and on Instagram @cindyelizabethphoto