THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE BLACK PICTORIAL
Photographs have the kind of authority over imagination today, which the printed word had yesterday, and the spoken word before that. They seem utterly real.
The picture magazines of the 1940s did for the public what television did for audiences of the 1950s: they opened new windows in the mind and brought us face to face with the multicolored possibilities of man and woman.
The birth of the modern African American pictorial magazine in the 1940s and 1950s paralleled the mainstream popularity of illustrated tabloid newspapers and picture magazines, a phenomenon that arose in the 1920s and 1930s. The increasing dominance of these periodicals was built on the public’s fascination with and trust in photography: readers increasingly came to expect information to arrive in visual form.
The pictorial magazines of the Johnson Publishing Company—Ebony, Jet, Tan, and Ebony Jr., among others—were pivotal in promoting affirmative black imagery in popular culture. Pointing to the slow but significant rise of the black middle class in the period following World War II, the company’s founder, John H. Johnson, adhered to a simple business philosophy: persuade companies and businesses that it was in their economic "self-interest" to advertise in his magazines and reach out to African American consumers. John Johnson, more successfully than any other businessman of his era, capitalized on this desire to remake the image of black people in popular culture.
The visual revolution he initiated inspired a host of other, often short-lived black pictorial magazines, including Hue, Our World, Say, Sepia, and The Urbanite. These publications emphasized photo-essays about African American achievement and celebrity but also reported on the harsh reality of racism. The magazines’ upbeat content catered to subscribers and sponsors alike, providing readers with pictures that defied stereotypes and advertisers with stories that sold the idea of black success, stability, and affluence.