In this series, Lagniappe presents a different work each week from the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art, with commentary from a curator.
The chances are good that during December you will hear — either by choice or accident — Eartha Kitt’s iconic holiday tune “Santa Baby.” Kitt recorded the original (and still superior) version of the song in 1953. Prior to the song’s release, Kitt toured as a dancer with the Katherine Dunham Company between 1943 and 1948.
Sometime around that stint and the release of “Santa Baby,” photographer Austin Hansen photographed Kitt leading a dance group at the Harlem YMCA.
By the 1950s, the Harlem Y held a well-established reputation as a crucible of Black creativity. Within that setting, Hansen’s photograph illustrates Kitt’s dynamism and magnetism as a performer.
This particular photograph also offers insight into Hansen’s craft and skill as a picture-maker. Born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hansen began taking photographs as a young man before moving to New York City in 1928. For six decades, Hansen produced countless portraits for Harlem families, clergy, politicians and celebrities, using a heavy and immobile camera in his studio.
Hansen also proved highly mobile throughout the city, making photographs for clubs, organizations, and events. For these Hansen often used smaller hand-held cameras, such as a Graflex, with which he could maneuver nimbly into the best position to make the perfect image.
In this case, Hansen knew to find a low perspective that puts the viewer in the front row and heightens the stature of the dancers.
In addition, Hansen’s adherence to the “rule-of-thirds” imbues the composition with a sense of balance that nearly approaches that of Kitt and her troupe.
This photograph, on loan to the New Orleans Museum of Art courtesy of The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, is on view as part of the exhibition "Called to the Camera: Black American Studio Photographers" at NOMA until Jan. 8.