Black Archives

A Photographic Celebration of Black Life

About the Book

A photographic celebration and exploration of Black identity and experience through the twentieth century from the founder and curator of the hit multimedia platform Black Archives.

“Browsing the book ultimately feels like looking through one immense family photo album. And that’s intentional.”—Essence

Renata Cherlise’s family loved capturing their lives in photographs and home movies, sparking her love of archival photography. Following in her family’s footsteps, Cherlise established Black Archives, which presents a nuanced representation of Black people across time living vibrant, ordinary lives. Through the platform, many have discovered and shared images of themselves and their loved ones experiencing daily life, forming multidimensional portraits of people, places, and the Black community. These photographs not only tell captivating stories, they hold space for collective memory and kinship. 
Black Archives is a stunning collection of timeless images that tell powerful, joyful stories of everyday life and shed light on Black culture’s dynamic, enduring influence through the generations. The images showcase reunions, nights out on the town, parents and children, church and school functions, holidays, big life events, family vacations, moments at home, and many more occasions of leisure, excitement, reflection, and pride.
Featuring more than three hundred images that spotlight the iconic and the candid, Black Archives offers a nuanced compendium of Black memory and imagination.
Read more

Praise for Black Archives

Black Archives excels in cultivating an intimate and accessible experience—one that animates the multidimensional realities of Black existence with the power of community and acknowledgement of heritage. It is a triumph of community—one that denies us the ability to forget the ways that we celebrate our families, fight for our legacies, and support each other throughout the diaspora, from the mundane to the most significant milestones, despite consistently being socialized via white supremacist pathology to believe otherwise.”—Harper’s Bazaar

“In her new book, Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life, Renata Cherlise makes the case for celebrating everyday Black joy.”—Vox

“The Black Archives book—out this month—is the embodiment of one of the core ideals of the platform: honoring the Black past by making it accessible.”—The Cut

Black Archives is a testament to the potency of Black collective memory held through photography. Using her own expansive, familial collection of photographs, Renata Cherlise sets forth a spell-binding visual narrativization of family, culture, and history.”—Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem

“This book is a refuge as it shows how photographs have been consumed and shared by family members, churches, libraries, archives, and photographers. In viewing this book, we see interwoven stories about self-fashioning, representation, beauty, politics, and community memorialized through the camera. The photographs presented here create some of the most compelling visual responses to racialized images that objectified Black people and circulated through the history of the photographic medium. This amazing book with its dazzlingly-designed pages reflects the pride and determination of the people who created their own archives.”—Dr. Deborah Willis, author of Posing Beauty in Black American Culture

“The collection of personal photographs in this visual time capsule showcases the daily lives of African Americans. Thanks to Renata Cherlise, they are now a part of an important historic document giving new life and meaning to each image, while providing future generations with a greater source of stories that are told through photographs.”—Jamel Shabazz, documentary photographer and author
Read more

Black Archives


To meditate on a name, a face, or the sound of someone’s laughter is an intentional act of remembering, or an attempt to resist forgetting. Remembering, or being reminded of, helps to rework our understanding of our identity by giving us insight into the people and places that shape us. Through photography, particularly family pictures and snapshots, we get a better sense of our people, our histories, and our stories—we are able to add to, or cultivate, a language for the parts of our lives that cannot be fully known, even if felt.

A series of snapshots helps illuminate the stories we tell—and are told—about our lives. The intimacy held within these types of pictures gives us the agency as Black people to show up and to be witnessed as our full selves through our mannerisms and body language, often without an outside influence, gaze, or imposed restriction. With snapshots, anything goes, and historically they have served as a quick and affordable way to document the celebratory (and the mundane) moments in one’s life. I consider snapshots the most authentic storytelling medium in the written and visual language—they require very little technical skill yet can render some of the richest and most beautiful stories. It’s no wonder that snapshots are memorialized in family photo albums and passed down as evidence of lives, fully lived, throughout generations.

In many families, each generation has a designated member that curates their family photos. The work of this curation is a labor of love, and an impressive skill not to be taken lightly. Family photo albums are magical, yet familiar. For many, they are home. They are spaces to find comfort, strength, and even escape. An album is a place where you are met with faces you know, and perhaps some you come to know—faces that reveal and inspire stories and confessionals. They force us to reflect on the various ways that we have appeared—and faded away—throughout the years. The family member who is called upon to gather and curate these images is doing their family—and our collective histories—a great service by pulling together the truth of our existence as people.

One of my most treasured activities growing up was flipping through the pages of our family photo album. Ours was meticulously curated by my dad, Edwin, who thoroughly enjoyed being our designated photographer. I never saw my dad drop a roll of film off for developing and rarely saw the envelope with developed photographs and negatives. I never caught him rearranging the photographs into the album, weaving them through cut-­out magazine or newspaper clippings in lieu of writing the date or location alongside the image or on the page beside it. It existed—like magic. Fifteen years after his death, I am amazed at the power of being able to relive these moments and consider his intentionality today. Because of his passion, I am able to revisit and trace our story, to try to see it like he did. Each time I look back, I pick up on something new that I hadn’t noticed, or perhaps didn’t previously have the language for.

Through the evolution of technology, we are now able to bring these snapshots into the digital realm, where we can share them with our relatives over group texts and social media. This practice allows us to create, cultivate, and  share space within online communities and form kinships that reflect a collective familial experience—from things we recognize within our own families and our commonalities, to our differences and the ways our households and traditions are unique. It gives us space to discuss family archival methods, teach one another new ways of storytelling using family keepsakes, and exchange techniques to help us create and sustain our own personal archives. These digital communities help us connect with long-lost relatives while identifying a new generation of archivists, storytellers, ethnographers, and historians. It’s a way for us to create new systems to avoid archival loss and erasure.

I recognize that not everyone has access to family photographs, or stories. In many families, particularly Black families, tangible keepsakes have been lost, destroyed, or taken over the years, leaving future generations with the task of piecing together misplaced histories. This can be difficult to reconcile, particularly during a time when there are so many people sharing moments from the past in digital spaces. Those who find themselves without family photos and keepsakes can often find joy and comfort in those of other families. Even in the images of people we don’t personally know, we can find so many familiar figures and moments: kids playing in the yard, parents dressed up for an occasion, family gatherings, and celebrations. These images prompt our own memories, allowing us access to both our individual and our collective pasts.

Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life explores familial archiving practices, and how we experience kinship and recognize one another through a visual language of the Black experience. This book also fills the chasm of silence between the photos of where truth lives, and the black hole of the unknown. The images in this book were sourced from the Black Archives community and archives held in various institutional repositories. In the spirit of trying to create a collective family album about Black life, I issued a call for photo submissions and received hundreds of incredible family photos from Black folks all over the world. People shared what they knew about the photos, but a lot of the information about the people, locations, and time periods captured was not known or had been lost to time—such is the nature of family photo archives. As such, the scope of information provided about the images in this book varies: some photo captions contain names, locations, and dates; others might only contain locations, names, or may only have estimated dates. This inconsistency is to be expected given the nature of this work, and to some degree, may heighten the experience of this book as a collective family album.

It is my desire that the photographs collected here honor the many stories that were lost in transition, and that by sharing these archiving practices, I can help amplify the stories we do have through collective kinship.

About the Author

Renata Cherlise
Renata Cherlise is a multidisciplinary, research-based visual artist who uses various mediums to explore themes of identity, family, and culture. Cherlise’s work seamlessly bridges her Southern upbringing with contemporary methodologies in digital and physical spaces while reimagining notions of the Black experience. Her archival project, Black Archives, has evolved from a photo-based website of visual narratives into a collaborative platform featuring archival histories and modern-day stories from across the African diaspora.  More by Renata Cherlise
Decorative Carat