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'I Dream a World' Still Captures African-American Beauty

Special to Informer | , Ronda Smith | 2/17/2013, 4:38 p.m.

In the Spring of 1989, Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Brian Lanker, released a book of photographs like no other. "I Dream a World: Portraits of 75 Black Women Who Changed America," captured the beauty, resilience, and vibrancy of some of America's most celebrated African American women.

Now in its 14th printing, the portraits were showcased as an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, breaking attendance records for that museum, in the process. The book sold more than 450,000 copies during its first decade in print.

"I really did it more for history-and thought it was important to have a book like this around 50 or 75 years from now so that people could look back and understand whose shoulders they were standing on," Lanker once said. "And I think it's not about photography per se...I certainly didn't try to exercise my craft to the highest level I might have been able to, under the circumstances, but the book is there not because of me, but because of the women."

The idea for the book came to Lanker because he found himself continually running across stories about notable African American women while he was reading or watching television. He said he "realize[d] how important they really were...and how no one had brought them together as a group to really speak to the overall strength and importance of these women."

Award-winning poet-writer Maya Angelou, who was one of his subjects, also wrote the original introduction. In it she asserts, "These women have descended from grandmothers and great grandmothers, who knew the lash firsthand, and to whom protection was a phantom known of, but seldom experienced...But they are whole women. Their hands have brought children through blood to life, nursed the sick, and folded the winding cloths. Their wombs have held the promise of a race which has proven to each challenging century that despite threat and mayhem it has come to stay. Their feet have trod the shifting swampland of insecurity, yet they have tried to step neatly into the footprints of mothers who went before. They are not apparitions; they are not superwomen. They are not larger than life."

At 63, after returning home from an assignment, in March 2011, Lanker was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which would claim him in just ten days.

"I don't think I really understood the double minority until I read The Color Purple," Lanker once said. "I saw myself, a white man, and I realized so much more the oppression that men in general are responsible for."