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Marilyn Nance (born 1953)

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Biographical Essay


Marilyn Nance is a photojournalist who goes her own way. She wants to tell the truth, particularly about her own community whom she calls ordinary working class Black folks. She follows her instincts, leading her down paths beyond still photography. Marilyn noted in a lecture at the Library of Congress, ". . . the commercial media often has no interest in showing the images that I feel need to be shown."1

Marilyn describes herself as a photojournalist--creating documentary stories with images. Although she has published photographs in Life, The New York Times, The Village Voice, Essence, and NY Newsday, publication as news is incidental to her photography. And, her photography is incidental to her central purpose: the exploration of human connections.

The Prints & Photographs Division collections at the Library of Congress include a selection of Marilyn's work from the 1970s and 1980s.

Early Life

Marilyn was born in New York in 1953 and grew up in Brooklyn. Her generation was the first to learn principally through the visual communication media of television and picture magazines. Marilyn studied journalism at New York University from 1971 to 1972.

When people look at photographs in their family albums and compare them with contemporary photographs, they become more aware of their identities, historically and geographically. Marilyn experienced this in 1973 when she photographed family members in their daily activities in her mother's home--Pratt City, a Black suburb of Birmingham, Alabama.

In 1972-76, Marilyn completed a B.F.A. degree in communications and graphic design at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute. A growing awareness of the lack of African-American photographers on the staff of mainstream publications, coupled with the need for companies to comply with equal opportunity laws, helped African-American women photographers find work. In 1975, Marilyn made photographs of churches in Brooklyn and Harlem and provided freelance photographs to The Village Voice. In 1996, she obtained an M.F.A. from the Maryland Institute College of Art. She is also a graduate of New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program.

Professional Projects

Initially, Marilyn produced still photographs in Black communities, including Black Indians of New Orleans, an African village in South Carolina, and the first Black church in America. In 1991 and 1993, she was a finalist for the W. Eugene Smith Award in Humanistic Photography for her work on African-American spiritual culture in America.

As the market for picture magazines gave way to television and video, Marilyn moved from photographic documentation toward storytelling. Since 1994 she has explored power relationships in what she calls "Spirit, Faith, Grace, Rage: African Spiritual Culture in the United States." Marilyn is also a digital pioneer. In 1998, she developed an Ifa divination Web application. In 1999, she headed a digital Web project for the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, putting online more than 500 images of nineteenth-century African Americans. Through her photographs, Marilyn has provided insight into the lives of her community. She continues to communicate through a variety of media to, as she says, address matters of "spirituality, the supernatural, family history, and the souls of Black folks."


1The Photographs of Marilyn Nance, Webcast from Library of Congress lecture, 2004, http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/video/nance/nance.html


Prepared by: Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2011. Last revised: April 2011.
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  July 26, 2011
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