In the summer of 1967, Photography and Imaging alumna and pioneering commercial photographer Barbara DuMetz, then 20, took her new Kodak Instamatic—a gift from her dentist father—and walked through her Detroit neighborhood, photographing houses and beauty salons burned during the uprising there a few days earlier. African-American residents had clashed with police to protest deep-seated racism, economic disparity and police brutality.
“I used that camera to start photographing life before I knew I would become a photographer,” says DuMetz by phone from her home in Atlanta, Georgia, where she retired eight years ago.
Starting in the early ‘70s, DuMetz ran her own advertising photography business in Southern California for more than 40 years. She’s known for her photos of African-American actors, musicians, visual artists and luminaries such as Maya Angelou, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Miles Davis, Pam Grier, Rosa Parks, Betye Saar and Charles White, as well as groundbreaking national ads depicting African Americans for brands such as Kraft, Coca-Cola, Delta, Nestle and McDonald’s.
“I’m most proud of the fact that I was able to sustain having a credible commercial photography business as an African-American woman,” says DuMetz. “It was also important to me to present images of African Americans being like everybody else. There are many negative images out there because of racism. People come in all colors, and want the same things: a happy life, community.”
DuMetz followed in the footsteps of her grandfather, a photographer. After college, she briefly worked in New York City, attended graduate school for counseling in Atlanta, then moved to SoCal to pursue photography at ArtCenter. “That’s where I learned everything I know about photography,” she says.
DuMetz’s talent and tenacity—amid discrimination in the ‘70s—led to her landing assignments with prominent African-American advertising agencies such as Proctor & Gardner and Burrell, and magazines such as Essence and Black Enterprise. “I was a one-woman force,” she says.
Her trailblazing 1977 Kraft ad for Proctor & Gardner depicts an African-American girl holding a doll and smiling. DuMetz shot her award-winning 1984 Coca-Cola ad for Burrell—depicting children splashing around a fire hydrant—in the parking lot of her L.A. studio. “There was so much joy in that ad,” she says. Other campaigns included a 1995 McDonald’s billboard featuring a man holding up a breakfast sandwich, and a 2001 Delta brochure promoting workplace diversity.
When she had only 20 minutes to photograph Maya Angelou at the Beverly Hills Hotel for Essence in the mid ‘80s, she took advantage of the hotel room’s natural light. “It hit her face just right,” DuMetz says. Miles Davis played his music for her at his Malibu studio in 1985, then said in a raspy voice, “Take a shot of me!”
DuMetz’s recent personal photo projects have an abstract quality, emphasizing texture and contrast. Since moving to Atlanta, she’s been featured in several photography exhibitions there, and is in the midst of working on a memoir.
“I’m excited to put together a book of all of my images,” says DuMetz. “As a photographer, you should always work on your craft.”