For over four decades, Carrie Mae Weems has used the camera to capture what it means to be alive in our time. What she calls her art of “social inclusion” has inspired generations of artists since, and it continues to captivate audiences today.
The Early Life of Carrie Mae Weems
Born in Portland, Oregon in 1953, Weems was the second of seven children. As a girl, she did dance and street theater, already seeking to express herself.
When she left home, it was to study modern dance with Anna Halprin in San Francisco. Halprin’s in-depth discussions about dance sought ways to use the art form as a route for cultural exchange and building peace between societies.
While Weems did not continue to work in dance after her time with Halprin, many of the themes of this early mentor continued to resurface through her long career.
At 28, she graduated from CalArts and sought her MFA at UC San Diego while also working in the folklore graduate program at UC Berkeley. And throughout her twenties, Weems worked as a union organizer, developing a radical class politics that would find a home in her future oeuvre.
At the age of 18, Weems’ boyfriend gave her a camera as a gift. She immediately connected to the medium. Years later, she discovered Shawn Walker’s “The Black Photographers Annual,” and it sparked a deep curiosity in her to explore photography as an art form.
She went to New York to develop this interest, beginning her art career in earnest.
Weems as an Artist
In 1983, Carrie Mae Weems released her first photography collection entitled “Family Pictures and Stories.” The works also included text and spoken word elements. In it, she traces her own family’s migration from the South to the North, touching on the broader cultural experience of other black families like hers.
For the next decade, she continued to create mostly staged photography shots in a documentarian style, creating a compelling aesthetic that always delivered socially relevant insights into American society.
During the 80s, Weems also experimented with humor—as with her 1987 work Mirror, Mirror. In this piece, humor is used to both highlight American culture’s refusal of black beauty, as well as ridicule this white supremacist perspective.
Picturing Life as It Is
Weems was launched into the art world stratosphere in the early 90s with the release of The Kitchen Table Series. In these works, the artist creates a magnificent balance between the personal and the social. The social forces of history and interwoven with the achingly human moments at the kitchen table. Weems serves as the main subject, with narratives told over several frames.
With her reputation now secured, Weems continues to experiment. She has gone on to create in a wide range of mediums, including photography, short film, video installations, fabric, text, performance art, and beyond.
Her ability to bring social issues of race, class, and gender into poignant, private moments makes her stunning work heartbreaking and empowering all at the same time.
In March 2023, the Hasselblad Foundation announced Carrie Mae Weems as the 2023 Hasselblad Award laureate.
The foundation cites: “Carrie Mae Weems’s work has for decades anticipated salient issues of our time—the struggle for racial equality and human rights—with unflinching visual and ethical force. Her artistic practice is inherently activist, poignant, and lyrical. She creates evocative, potent tableaux and confronts painful histories, institutional power, and social discriminations. At the core of Weems’s wide-ranging oeuvre is the still photograph, but she also deftly employs video, text, immersive multimedia installations, and performance. She often inserts herself in her work, thus embodying and commemorating the Black female subject.
In response, the artist Carrie Mae Weems states: “In the midst of the radical shifts taking place across cultural institutions, and as the first African American woman to receive the Hasselblad Award, some might say, ‘it’s about time!’ Nevertheless, receiving the Hasselblad Award has left me speechless. I don’t have the words to express the depth of my gratitude. To have my family name inscribed on this historic roster, alongside some of the most outstanding photographers of our time, is a cherished honor. To be recognized comes with the continued responsibility to deliver on the promise made to myself and to the field, which is to shine a light into the darker corners of our time and thereby, with a sense of grace and humility, illuminate a path forward. For this honor, I thank the Hasselblad Foundation and the jury.’
The Swedish foundation promotes scientific education and research in photography and the natural sciences. The foundation’s annual international award for outstanding achievements in photography is considered one of the most prestigious photography awards worldwide.
The original feature was part of our Madness issue, printed in 2017.
All Works Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery.