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Author Michael Cunningham on his amazing work depicting black culture

Michael Cunningham
What was your first experience with a camera?
My first experience with a camera was when my Uncle Ernie Pitt bought me a Minolta XG9 35mm for Christmas when I was 12-years-old. He only asked in return that I photograph each one of my six brothers and sisters and give him a copy…

Do you have a mentor? If yes, who?
I would have to say that my uncle was and has been my mentor throughout my life and career.

What is your favorite image of your work? Please share.
My favorite image is the first image that I took for my first book CROWNS. I can remember being in the darkroom and seeing the face of Audrey Easter emerge in processing tray. I knew I was on to something. The strength, power and determination I saw, was so emotional for me even until this day.

What is it about photography that you love so much?
I think what I like about photography the most is capturing a moment in time, as it’s evolving because you can never go back in time. I always felt that it was a very important assignment that I had in life … to accurately record where we are … how we are … at that particular moment.

Who is an ideal client for you?
An ideal client for me … I have several. I loved working with Vibe Magazine on their historic edition that featured President Obama on the cover in 2008. I worked with the very talented stylist, Memsor Kamarake (I believe he is Wendy Williams’ stylist now) on a photo shoot about fashion during the civil rights era … I think I blended the old with the new. Also, Starz Entertainment hired me to photograph Martin Lawrence and the comedians for the “1st Amendment Stand Up” series promotional pieces … that was fun!

What advice do you have for someone who aspires to be a photographer?
The advice I give to new photographers is to be true to yourself and the things, places and people that you choose to document.

Michael Cunningham book covers

When did you consider yourself a professional?
I got my start as a commercial photographer and my first major client was Wachovia Bank (now Wells Fargo). I remember getting that first check for an assignment that I was so happy that I cashed the check and went home and spread it all over the bed … couldn’t believe that I could support myself for doing something that I loved.

How did the opportunity of you becoming an author happen? Please share the titles of your books or book covers?
CROWNS: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats (Doubleday 2000), Spirit of HARLEM- A Portrait of America’s Most Exciting Neighborhood ( Doubleday 2003), Queens: Portraits of Black Women and Their Fabulous Hair ( Doubleday 2005) and JEWELS: 50 Phenomenal Black Women over 50 (Little, Brown 2007)

I had been a commercial photographer for about 16 years and got a little bored. I wanted to work on a personal project that would be done in black and white film. I grew up in the church and remembered my mom saying that a woman should cover her head out of respect for God. One day I was talking to a friend of mine that returned from a family reunion and she mentioned the Sunday service and how she enjoyed seeing her relatives in the big fancy hats. A light came on in my head … I would document these women for the world to behold. I gave it the title CROWNS because that is what I thought the women felt they were wearing … It was a personal project that evolved into a number one musical stage play and still is being produced around the country, in calendars of photos, note cards, crystal figurines, etc.

Where do you see your career in the next five years?
I would like to team up with another writer or two and produce more coffee table photo essay books [and do] more exhibitions and commissioned work.