Berenice Abbott’s 1930 Photographs of A’Lelia Walker

A'Lelia Walker by Berenice Abbott circa 1930 (from Walker Family Archives of A'Lelia Bundles)

A’Lelia Walker–charismatic, statuesque and stylish–posed for many of the most noted Harlem Renaissance photographers and sculptors, including Richmond Barthe, Augusta Savage, James Van Der Zee, James Latimer Allen and R. E. Mercer.

She also sat for Greenwich Village resident, Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), one of the premiere photographers of the 20th century and a protegee of Man Ray. Perhaps best known for her dramatic black-and-white photographs of New York City architecture during the 1930s, Abbott also was an accomplished portrait photographer.

Sylvia Beach, the American owner of Paris’s Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, once said, “To be ‘done’ by Man Ray or Berenice Abbott meant you rated as somebody.”

A'Lelia Walker by Berenice Abbott circa 1930 (from Walker Family Archives of A'Lelia Bundles)

By 1930, when I believe these photos were taken, A’Lelia Walker–as the daughter of entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker and as the hostess of The Dark Tower, one of the most iconic gathering places of the Harlem Renaissance–certainly was “somebody.”

Several years ago, as I was looking through my Walker collection, I realized that one of the necklaces my grandparents had saved actually matched the jewelry in the Abbott photograph. I’d originally discovered it in my mother’s jewelry box and worn it during the 1960s and 1970s because it fit so well with the hippie fashion of the era. At the time I had no idea of  its significance or that it had belonged to my namesake and great-grandmother, the first A’Lelia.

A'Lelia Walker's necklace (Walker Family Archives of A'Lelia Bundles)

Now each day as I write new pages of my A’Lelia Walker biography, I look up at these photos and wonder what in the world was making my namesake smile so happily!

Update: My friend and fellow biographer, Carol Jenkins, made me aware of Abbott’s comments about this photo shoot: “Walker was a delightful woman and I have always liked the expression here very much. It was good so I snatched it out of the air very quickly.” (from Berenice Abbott by Hank O’Neil/published by Steidl 2008)
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About A'Lelia Bundles

A'Lelia Bundles is an author, journalist, public speaker and president of the Madam Walker/A'Lelia Walker Family Archives. Her book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, was a NY Times Notable Book. For more information visit www.aleliabundles.com
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4 Responses to Berenice Abbott’s 1930 Photographs of A’Lelia Walker

  1. Joseph Hickman says:

    Incredible photographs! Such style in the Person and Lens controller. Awesome.

    • Joseph,
      Thanks for stopping by our Walker Archives blog. It was a bonus to learn of Berenice Abbott’s (“the Lens controller”) comment about how much she enjoyed the photo shoot with A’Lelia Walker (“the Person”). A’LW lived a truly fascinating life. Stay tuned for more

  2. Marci Walker says:

    I so enjoyed looking at the lovely photos. I don’t remember seeing them in your book. Thank you A’Lelia for keeping ‘The Madam and A’Lelia Sr. alive for all of us. It is good to know that some Black folks lived well in the early 1900’s. Its also a proud history lesson that you show us, in that your Great Great Grand mother was an activist as well as an entrepreneur.
    Peace & Blessings

    Marci

    • Marci,
      I’m so glad you enjoyed the photos. You’re right that these images weren’t included in my book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. For my new A’Lelia Walker biography, I have many previously unpublished stories to tell and lots of photographs that have never been included in books. I can’t tell you how fortunate I am to have had a grandfather who understood the importance of preserving history.
      Thanks to you for all the work you do to set high standards for today’s entrepreneurs, stylists and cosmetologists.
      A’Lelia

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