Salimah Ali: Legendary Eye

Salimah Ali: Legendary Eye

Salimah Ali is a legend in New York art.  From music to street photography, Harlem born Ali is attracted to that which is striking, vivid and the elegance of raw beauty. “When I’m in the street, my eyes are always clicking, taking pictures”, she says.

Crediting her undergrad experience at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City as a catalyst for her career, her images have been exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Soho Photo Gallery, The Brooklyn Museum, and The Aperture Gallery. The lenswoman’s photographs are also part of a permanent collection at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture. 

Known for her fascinating work with musicians, it’s photographing stars such Earth, Wind & Fire, Grace Jones, Eartha Kitt and Stevie Wonder to name a few, that shine in her memory. Like the image of Teddy Pendergrass reading Discoworld magazine backstage before a show, she captures those intimate, quiet moments that take place right before something big is about to happen.

“TeddyP”: Backstage with Teddy Pendergrass before a show in NYC.
image: Salimah Ali
“AliciaKeyes”: Photographed at the Gordon Parks exhibition in New York.
image: Salimah Ali

Ali’s clicking eye grabs beauty in what a pedestrian might find mundane. She recalls “I remember being in Florida and I was taking a picture of some pipes. A man stopped and asked me why I was shooting the pipes. When I showed him what I had taken, he was like ,’wow, now I see it differently’. That’s the thing about what photographers or image makers do. We take something people would normally walk by and make them see it differently.” Ali goes on, “A cigarette butt in the street or an ice cream cone that just fell”—an old pay phone , a red door— “artists make people see these things differently.”

“Dial Tone” in New Orleans. image: Salimah Ali

Looking forward to the story behind the woman in the cowboy hat, Ali agrees,“I do love the cowgirl.” A part of a series, Ali notes the layers of women, “People are not aware that there are Black women and girls who love horses.”

“Cowgirl Gloria Moore” image: Salimah Ali

Ali is working on a series called, Darker Than A Paper Bag. Over 100 photographs of dark skinned people, each tell Ali their story of growing up richly melanated in America. “I remember years ago parents wanted their daughters to marry a light skinned guy or vice versa. Ali says, “It’s still an issue. It’s so deep and embedded in the Black community and it behooves me why.”

Niesha Hogan from the upcoming series Darker Than A Paper Bag.image: Salimah Ali

Tap Waterz is a part of the Harlem duo 4 Wheel City. Tap Waterz and his partner Rickfire are rappers and paraplegics. Tap Waterz was shot by accidental gunfire by his cousin when he was 17. Activists for gun control ane people with disabilities, the duo has performed at the White House and the United Nations.

TapWaterz from the rap group 4 Wheel City. image: Salimah Ali
John Allen, portrait of her father. image: Salimah Ali

The portrait of John Allen, Salimah’s father is most gripping and intense. When asking her about the image she clarifies its depth: “My dad had polio since the age of about 10. There wasn’t much information on people who were handicap during that time. My father was very determined to make a better life for himself and his family. He retired from Fairchild Inc. which made parts for spaceships. He was also an oil painter and painted up until the age of 80-81. He passed in June of 2009. So I name this image “The Climb to 14” because when we lived in the projects in Brooklyn and the elevator was broken he had to climb 14 floors to the top to reach home. His determination and strength have motivated me to stay strong and move forth in my career as an artist and photographer.” 

Follow and view more of Salimah Ali’s work on IG @ Salimah1

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