Diana Ross. Stevie Wonder. Jay-Z and Diddy. How This Photographer Captured What You Didn’t See
The man glancing off to the distance is truly distinct. He’s got Jheri curls and is decked out in a black open collared shirt and a slim white blazer. Topping off the ensemble is white and grey beaded necklace that is glistening just below his chest.
Even more striking, though, is the expression on his face. He’s smiling broadly. In fact, it looks as if he’s about to erupt in deep belly laughter. This is Miles Davis like we’ve never, ever seen him before.
And it’s a picture of him that has long been a prized possession of the person who took it — the exceptional New York-based photographer Alix Dejean.
At a time when the legendary-but-famously surly jazzman was in the headlines for being, well, surly — Dejean somehow convinced Davis to set aside his impenetrable guard rails for a change and relax. (For the record, it took one whopper of a joke.)
And yet it’s just one of thousands upon thousands of photographs — most of which have never before been published — that Dejean took during a dynamic career that spanned some 50 years.
In that time, Dejean captured the rise of a dizzying array of Black luminaries in music (ranging from Aretha Franklin and James Brown to Nina Simone and Michael Jackson) to activists (including Rosa Parks, Stokely Carmichael, and Coretta Scott King) and pop cultural pioneers like Prince, John Lennon, Diana Ross, and Andy Warhol. Simply put, anyone who was anyone had appeared before his camera lens at one point or another.
Indeed, his legacy is vast and considerable. That was long apparent even before Dejean passed away last month at the age of 75. And yet even as we collectively grapple with frayed nerves and jaw-dropping headlines these days, it’s still fitting to pause and consider all that he has given to the world.
In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve known Dejean — whom I affectionately called “Uncle Alix” — since 2008. While working on a book about the late New York City radio DJ Frankie Crocker, I was introduced to him as someone who could serve as a knowledgeable source with plenty of stories to share. (For a time, Dejean was Crocker’s personal photographer.) But little did I know that he would ultimately become a mentor.
But I was not alone. (He proudly schooled Sean “Diddy” Combs and Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter when they were coming up too.) For all that he accomplished in life, Dejean was just as dedicated to looking ahead as he was in sorting through events of the past. And so, he made it a point to engage people — young Black adults, especially — on a broad range of subjects.
Long before #BlackExcellence, Dejean argued that Black history should be illuminated so brightly that no one could claim not to have seen it. And that Black storytellers should be on the frontlines in documenting and preserving it. That was his mission; his life’s work.
Born in the Haitian capital city of Port-au-Prince, Dejean migrated to New York City in 1965. At City College of New York, he graduated with a degree in civil engineering and began working in the field. But at each and every turn, Dejean confronted the hurdles of systemic racism. As a result, he set out to pursue a completely different path to make a living and a life for himself.
At first, photography was just a hobby. And he was actually a complete novice when he picked up the camera initially. But, in time, Dejean — a devotee of the famed Black photographers James Van DerZee and Gordon Parks — would teach himself the tricks of the trade by applying all that he knew about physics and chemistry.
Eventually, a major breakthrough would come Dejean’s way after he was introduced to the discotheque scene of the late 1960s. That’s where he became fast-friends with assorted record industry powerbrokers and gained a foothold into a world that mainstream culture was only just beginning to discover and tap into.
In working independently as an entrepreneur — while taking out photographs at Black nightspots, social clubs and far more intimate settings — Dejean steadily built his own enterprise, whereby he would sell those snapshots to artists, record labels and news outlets including JET and EBONY magazine. He would insist upon using color film at a time when printing in black-and-white was standard. (He was also just as adamant about the need to develop those images himself to ensure that the varying degrees of Black skin tones were accurately reflected.) In doing so, he skillfully used his camera to reveal truths that were hiding in plain sight.
Blending a healthy dose of appreciation for dance, books, spirituality and culture — Dejean managed to bond with entertainers, social justice warriors, writers, politicos, fashionistas, models and assorted taste-makers in a manner that transcended so many other working photographers of his day. His natural rapport provided unprecedented access. And that would also include unsavory figures such as the Harlem-based crime boss Leroy “Nicky” Barnes.
“When I first met them, I didn’t know what they did,” Dejean once reflected. “But I photographed them as real people, complex people.”
(With his foreign disposition and a thick, Creole-laden accent, Dejean was just as much of a curiosity to his photo subjects as they were to the rest of us.) Moreover, Dejean would travel internationally — including Europe and Africa with Stevie Wonder and Muhammad Ali, respectively.
Dejean’s life was an epic adventure and he pursued it all with gratitude, grace, humor and plenty of originality.
In his later years, Dejean — a father of two with a grandchild and five siblings — was as busy as ever. In 2015, he released a book with exclusive photos of Michael Jackson and his siblings entitled Jackson: The Dynasty. And he just never stopped working. (One could say that “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” was something of a mantra for him.) And Dejean — toting a daily edition of The New York Times under his arm — loved to patrol the streets of the city, especially Harlem (which he affectionately called “The Mountain.”) On most days, that’s where he could be found—either talking smack at an area barbershop, counseling young people to steer their lives in a positive direction, or diligently working inside a darkroom, where he developed photographs that he took of everyone from Mick Jagger to Rick Ross.
But even with a pictorial archive that is full of the famed and the infamous, Dejean’s catalogue also has a significant portion that captured the decades-long experiences of ordinary Black folks, who went about their lives in New York with little fanfare but to themselves.
He was just as proud to chronicle their stories as he was of anything else. It was their neighborhoods that were neglected. It was their struggles, sacrifices, aspirations and realities that were largely ignored. But they were his heart and soul. And so, when a New York Times reporter once asked Dejean to describe his career in 2008 — he didn’t skip a beat in summarizing his legacy: “I am the people’s photographer.” _________________________