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Picturing Freedom: African Americans & Their Cars, A Photographic History


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The pictorial history of American civil rights you never knew you needed

I'm not always a fan of photographic books, most often the content seems to take a back seat to a random consortium of imagery, thrown together by the author to fill out pages. They don't provide the level of substance I look for when I want to fully immerse myself in a period of History. Not this book, however.

Picturing Freedom is a fascinating collection of imagery of African Americans with their motorcars from across the twentieth century. Shedding light on an overlooked element of American culture, Burns highlights the significance of car ownership for what was most often the most impoverished segment of society. It offered freedom from segregation, class and gender structure and from the bindings of Jim Crow laws.

Opening with an introduction, extensive historical context, and several case studies of influential African Americans, the book showcases hundreds, if not thousands, of images from the Burns archive. Moving chronologically from the turn of the 1900s, where expensive cars limited most to posing in studios with set props, through to the roaring twenties, thirties and forties and beyond, the clothes and models may change must the sense of owner pride remains the same.

As I moved through this book I found myself completely transfixed by the characters and the stories I desperately wanted to learn more about. The young solider headed to war, the women with the blunt stare down the lens, elbow proudly rested on the bonnet. These are truly the untold stories of ordinary people during a turbulent period of American civil rights. And yet for the most part, these individuals are nameless, limited to the occasional half-written note on the back of a photo. It leaves the reader guessing, who are these people? What were their thoughts, ambitions and dreams in life? And did they achieve them? Forget people watching, this is photo watching at its very best.

The time and effort Burns has invested into compiling, researching and editing this book is nothing short of admirable. If you're looking for something to spark a deep and meaningful conversation, or simply a new addition to your coffee table, then look no further.

AEB Reviews

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I've been blogging since 2014, showcasing the best hidden gems in publishing on my website. With me, it’s not a proper cup of coffee without a book and not a proper book unless I've (somehow) spilt coffee all over it.


Picturing Freedom chronicles and celebrates the photographic history of African Americans and their cars by focusing on personal images of the pride and joy of car ownership (1900-1980+). Owning a car was a significant life-changing achievement for African Americans. It offered special freedoms—freedom to travel, freedom to work further from home, freedom to visit family and friends, freedom to avoid Jim Crow laws, and freedom to migrate. The car was unequivocal evidence of Black success and an important symbol of status in a country that had long fought their advancement in every area. Car ownership was purposely and proudly photographed. All of the photographs were taken in Black communities by a family member or a friend and reveal how African Americans represented themselves.

This publication adds to the visual narrative of our culture through 272-pages and over 450 unique photographs. Accompanying the images are comprehensive histories of photography, car freedoms, and travel, as well as contributions from legendary photographer Chester Higgins, Jr. and public health advocate Gerald Deas, MD. This 2022 IPPY award-winning book is the sixth from Elizabeth A. Burns and the fiftieth from Stanley B. Burns, MD & The Burns Archive.

About the author

STANLEY B. BURNS, MD, is an internationally distinguished author, curator, historian, and collector. In 1975, he began collecting historic photography with an emphasis on unique images. He has written 50 photo-historical texts, over 1,000 journal articles, and curated more than 100 exhibitions. view profile

Published on August 01, 2022

Published by Burns Archive Press

20000 words

Genre: Photography

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