In July 2006, photographer Michael July took a picture of a young couple at a party in Brooklyn. “They were only 20 years old, and both of them had these big round Afros,” he recalled over the phone last week. Inspired by the image, he began documenting more men and women with Afros, and decided later that summer to expand the project into a book, supplementing his photographs with personal anecdotes from his subjects about their hair. Out July 26, Afros: A Celebration of Natural Hair is a 450-page ode to fluffy, natural heads.
Born and raised in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill, July has worn his own hair in long dreadlocks since the mid-nineties. “But both my parents had Afros, and they were artists, and they exposed me to a lot of museums and Brooklyn culture when I was growing up,” he says, citing visits to the Brooklyn Museum and Brooklyn Academy of Music. He started his career as a music producer, working predominantly with R&B and soul musicians. In the early aughts, he got into deejaying, which led to video. “I basically picked up a camcorder and started documenting all of the culture around me — parties, concerts, shows,” he says. At the encouragement of a friend, he bought an SLR camera and began taking his photography more seriously, educating himself with YouTube videos.
At first, July struggled to find subjects for his book. “When I started, I had to search really hard,” he says. He spent 2006 and 2007 traveling to different U.S. cities — Atlanta, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Miami, to name a few — looking for people with Afros. Then he realized more and more of them were right in his backyard. “For the first four years, it was difficult to find people who wore their hair naturally, but then I noticed a Renaissance period, particularly in Brooklyn,” he says. “A lot of them aren’t necessary native New Yorkers, but now here they are, with amazing hair.”
Is it too early to call Afros a trend? “There’s definitely a transition,” he says. “We’re seeing a much broader representation of natural hair that they weren’t seeing about five or six years ago. Particularly in the last three years, I’ve met a lot of people — lawyers, doctors, other professionals — who wear their hair naturally without worrying about it being socially acceptable.”
He cites celebrities like Solange Knowles and Questlove for bringing the look into fashion, as well as growing environmental concerns: “The green movement has made people more socially and personally conscious of what we put into our bodies. People are becoming more aware of the damaging chemicals in hair treatments, and they want to approach their hair in a sustainable way.” Meanwhile, blogs and websites have helped those thinking about “going natural” to find a like-minded community.
In-keeping with his book’s philosophy, July tried to shoot his subjects as naturally as possible, without Photoshop or retouching. Most of the pictures were taken against funky, seventies-themed backdrops, but others had to be shot en plein air because he was traveling or because the subjects couldn’t make it to his studio.
About a year ago, July raised $20,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to print the book — a hefty, full-color, 450-page volume with Afros of all sizes, textures, colors, ages, and origins. “I didn’t discriminate because of color or ethnicity, obviously,” he says. “Asian people and Hispanic people and white people have Afros too.” Was it ever tough to convince people to participate? “Sometimes I’d just give people my card and ask them to get in touch, and they’d write me these really profound things,” he says. “It’s amazing how much someone will tell you when you just ask about their hair.”
Click ahead to see exclusive images from July’s new book; its July 26 release will be celebrated with a book signing and photography exhibit at the Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn.
For more information about the event and where to buy the book, see here.