Visible/Invisible, Seen/Unseen: Harlem Portraits by Cathleen Campbell

Black and white photograph of young Black boy sitting on top of eagle statue.
This exhibition has closed
November 4, 2023–March 8, 2024
Hamilton Grange Library
Fully Accessible

“I fell in love with Harlem long before I got there.” This Langston Hughes quote echoes my own feelings. I’d been fascinated with Harlem ever since I’d learned about Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance when I was a little girl, growing up on the South Side of Chicago.

My fantasy of Harlem was naïve yet pretty accurate. What kind of fool could believe that everybody in Harlem is a poet, writer, artist, musician, or dancer? “Harlem” is the name of the Langston Hughes poem that begins: “What happens to a dream deferred?” In faces of the people in my Harlem portraits, you can see both the consequences of dreams deferred— and the fierce resistance to deferring dreams.

Yet decades ago, I was right about seeking a homeland for dreamers. Ever since moving to West Harlem, I’ve heard people who didn’t call themselves poets make conversations magical by their creative use of English and Spanish. I’ve learned new ways to move my body to figure out the newest dances, showing gratitude to the greatest musicians and MC’s in the world giving birth to new genres. I’ve admired the finesse of people simply navigating their way down Harlem sidewalks. Friends and neighbors who wouldn’t consider themselves to be artists confided their visions of what they wished they could express. That’s why this exhibit is dedicated to unsung heroes and heroines, Visible/Invisible, Seen/Unseen.

Photograph of boy looking out window down onto the street below.
City Kid's Point of View (Inside Out)
Young Black girl holds Black liberation flags in front of her face.
Girl With the Black Liberation Flags
Queen Elder looking to her right, dressed in vibrant purples and turquoise.
Queen Elder of 125th Street
Mature couple photographed together with his arm around her, American flags in the background
Olga and Sal and America
Black and white photograph of young Black boy sitting on top of eagle statue.
Harlem Boy on Wings

My approach to photography is Old School. I don’t use any distancing techniques, no oblique angles or added text, no major manipulation of images. I prefer natural light. I use my photojournalistic skills—capturing the “decisive moment”—to create work that warrants closer scrutiny as art. My work is deceptively simple. While creating, my approach and intent are conceptually complex. However, I value simplicity in presentation. Regardless of how articulate I may try to be, descriptions of my work can’t be more important that the work itself. I want everyone to feel welcome to see whatever they see in my photographs. In my Harlem portraits, I hope that everyone feels like they’re seeing part of themselves.

The spirit captured in my portraits is resiliency, defiance, vulnerability, and faith. Yet haunting my images of triumph and resistance, there's always the implied struggle against defeat and annihilation. Beyond aesthetics, as an African-American woman, my photographs are both a form a protest and an expression of love.

About the Artist

Photograph of Cathleen Campbell.

Cathleen Campbell has been photographing Harlem for decades but only recently began exhibiting her work. She primarily worked as an independent filmmaker, assisting on numerous productions, before starting to write and direct her own short films. Her films have been televised nationwide and played in several festivals.

Campbell got her first camera at age 6. She took terrible pictures but loved the whole experience, even if her gifts weren’t understood by others. Her mother introduced her to the Arts. Her father gave Campbell her first professional camera at age 14.

After a bad experience in her first photography class as a freshman at Yale, she never took another photography class there. She discovered the importance of learning outside the classroom. Campbell doesn’t’ call herself a self-taught photographer, because she’s learned from so many different types of people in so many ways.

Campbell’s 2014 return to the serious practice of photography was inspired by Curator & Photographer Michael Palma’s open invitation for submissions for the “Selfless Selfies” exhibit, sponsored by the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance. Since then, her work has been included in 15 more exhibits.

Follow Cathleen Campbell: Website | Instagram


A Conversation with the Artist will take place in-person at Hamilton Grange Library on Saturday, January 6 at 3PM.