Picture of the Week: #183-Edith, Ralph and the Baby-Riverside, California, 1998 by Tony Gleaton

February 26, 2023

Tony Gleaton, #183-Edith, Ralph and the Baby-Riverside, California, 1998, 1998, archival inkjet print, 17 x 17 in.

Leo Antony Gleaton was a remarkable American photographer and scholar. He is best known for his photographs of the Black Diaspora within Latin America. He was born on August 4, 1948 in Detroit. In the late 1950s, Gleaton and his family moved to Los Angeles, where he graduated high school. Following his service in Vietnam with the Marines, Gleaton enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles in the early 1970s; His interest in photography took off during his time at the university. Gleaton also attended other California institutions, such as the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and the University of California, Berkeley, but he did not earn a bachelor’s degree. 

Gleaton began his photography career in New York. He spent three years there, working as a photography assistant in the fashion industry. However, he believed he could find more meaningful work elsewhere. Gleaton started hitchhiking in his early 30s. He eventually found himself in Nevada, where he photographed Native American ranch hands and Black rodeo riders. Gleaton continued to photograph portraits of African American, Native American, Mexican American and Euro-American cowboys, traveling to Texas, Colorado, Idaho, and Kansas. These photographs culminated in his show “Cowboys: Reconstructing the American Myth,” which was displayed in galleries in Oklahoma, Nevada, and California. 

Prompted by his interest in Mexican rodeo, Gleaton traveled and photographed in Mexico as well. While there, he lived in villages on the coastal plains of Oaxaca, south of Acapulco, with Black communities whose ancestors were enslaved and brought to the Americas by the Spanish. The black and white images Gleaton captured during his travels to Mexico would come together in his exhibition “Africa’s Legacy in Mexico”. This show was sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, and, beginning in the 1990s, would be displayed in galleries throughout America for over a decade.

As a photographer, Gleaton was capable of doing a lot with a little. Bruce Talamon, the executor of the Tony Gleaton Photographic Trust, shares that “Tony would have a small bag with one medium-format camera, one lens, $5 in his pocket, and a few rolls of Tri-X film.” He financed his own trips to Mexico and Latin America, sticking to a budget. Gleaton often stayed at local churches while traveling and would offer to work for his meals. Despite these humble circumstances, he consistently produced breathtaking work. Additionally, he was very passionate about creating beautiful images of people of African descent. According to the Los Angeles Times, Gleaton “always wanted to do beauty pictures of Black folks;” He also shared the following statement with them in 1991, when his work was displayed at the Watts Tower Arts Center: “Whites have always had their Renoirs and their Matisses…What I do is make my own culture look beautiful, and in doing that I become more beautiful myself.” 

Gleaton’s 1998 archival inkjet print #183-Edith, Ralph and the Baby-Riverside, California, 1998 is part of one of his many photography series. This photograph has a very intimate tone. As viewers, we are close to entering the family's home. Ralph stands slightly in front of Edith and gazes directly at the viewer. He holds the baby close to his chest and away from the viewer. Likewise, Edith’s eyes are glued to their child. Despite their differing gazes, Edith and Ralph stand close together, their heads tilted towards each other. This establishes the family’s strong bond, as well as the influence of gender roles. As a husband and father, Ralph takes on a more protective stance over the family, as someone new seeks to enter their private domain. To add, Edith’s gaze highlights the powerful connection between mother and child. 

The family in Gleaton’s photograph appear to be biracial. Ralph’s dark skin and natural curls may suggest that he is of African descent. Edith has a lighter complexion than Ralph, but her dark hair and facial features may suggest that she is of Mexican descent. The representation of a biracial family would have likely been very rare during the 1990s. Gleaton sought to represent people of African and Mexican descent in a positive, beautiful light, and the same can be said for this particular image. By emphasizing their familial bond, Gleaton in turn illustrates Edith, Ralph and the baby’s beauty. Moreover, this image would have made a profound statement in 1990s California. Throughout this decade, African and Mexican Americans experienced systemic oppression on several levels, along with racist stereotypes. In contrast, Gleaton challenges the ill-treatment of and racism towards African and Mexican Americans in California by photographing a family in a dignified manner. While the representation of a family at the front door of their home evokes a sense of intimacy, the family also possesses agency. Ralph’s protective yet loving stance with Edith and the baby communicates that one needs permission to enter their home. Moreover, perhaps Ralph in particular demonstrates what bell hooks called the oppositional gaze. People of African and Mexican descent have historically been othered in American society, subjected to the White gaze. In contrast, Ralph challenges the historically dominant white gaze by looking directly at the viewer.   

Written by Angela Athnasios

Sources: bell hooks, "Oppositional Gaze," in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992).





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