Anthony Barboza: Moments of Humanity @Keith de Lellis

JTF (just the facts): A total of 38 black-and-white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space and the entry area. All of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints, made between 1966 and the 1980s. Image sizes range from roughly 6×4 to 13×9 inches (or the reverse), and no edition information was provided. (Installation shots below.)

The gallery show coincides with the publication of a monograph Eye Dreaming: Photographs by Anthony Barboza by the J. Paul Getty Museum (here). Hardcover, 9 3/4 x 12 inches, 216 black-and-white and color illustrations. Includes essays by Hilton Als and Aaron Bryant, and a conversation between the artist and Mazie M. Harris. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: Coming out of the excellent Kamoinge Workshop survey exhibit at the Whitney in 2020 (reviewed here), there was a wave of optimism about the potential for digging further into the individual careers of the Black photographers who were members of the group. And while the pandemic likely slowed some of that momentum down, this gallery show and a recently published retrospective monograph have thoughtfully started to fill out the artistic backstory of Anthony Barboza.

The earliest photographs on view in this show come from Florida in the late 1960s and capture a sense of the struggle against injustice being fought by Black Americans across the South at that time. The realities of pervasive poverty come through in two resonant images from 1968 – “In the Age of Flight” where a sleek airplane soars over a tin roofed house and its scrubby yard, and “Come on Children, Let’s Sing – Mahalia Jackson” where a group of Black children poses together on the front porch of a house, their faces etched with wary attention. Barboza takes a more grimly poetic approach to evoking this mood with a composite image of a neon sign from 1966, with the letters of LIBERTY broken and falling down, overlaid by the ghostly stars and stripes of the American flag.

But just a few years later, Barboza was up in New York and his eye was somewhat more bright and confident, documenting the spirit and beauty of Black life in the city. His images from Harlem, particularly on Sunday, are filled with smart fashions, including church dresses and hats, matching suits, and other stylish looks worn with a bit of swish and swagger. And an image of two young men on a bike, one with his fist triumphantly raised in the air as they speed by, feels similarly energized and positive.

Barboza’s photographic aesthetics become more recognizably his own when he lets his eye wander over the urban landscape and uncover the quietly surreal details hiding in plain sight. Two images of hands pushed against glass (one in an apartment window, the other in the back seat of a car) have an edge of horror movie desperation or gloomier despair, the hands grasping for connection but not quite finding it. Another storefront picture layers a paper picket fence and a tiny toy motorcycle underneath the reflections of the city, while other images align the heads of men looking at art and street graffiti with the works underneath, doubling Marilyn Monroe and having a thought bubble shouting No seem to emerge directly from a balding onlooker.

This deliberate stretching of visual reality finds additional expressive outlets in Barboza’s self-portraits, and in his portraits of other photographers in his inner circle of colleagues and friends. In one self-portrait, Barboza uses the elongated shadow of his arm to reach across the composition, seemingly pulling us across the frame. An another, his paired sidewalk shadow (with another figure) reverses the bend of two cactus plants in a storefront window, creating a slippery back and forth movement. There are maybe half a dozen portraits of Ming Smith, the only female member of Kamoinge, included here and again Barboza employs plenty of shadow play and unbalanced compositions in his pictures, with more outstretched hands as well reaching here and there. He then adds shimmered blur (in a portrait of Ray Francis) and dark dappled shadow (in a portrait of Louis Draper), transforming the setups with improvisational expression.

These kinds of stylistic experiments took fuller form when Barboza was on assignment making portraits of celebrities, musicians, artists, and fashion models in the 1970s and 1980s. A 2018 gallery show of his innovative portraits (reviewed here) provided a wide ranging sampler of his varied approaches (primarily in a project called “Black Borders”), but this show only includes three portraits of this kind. In his 1971 portrait of Pat Evans (which is the cover image for the monograph), Barboza has oiled her skin, creating a shaved head profile that shines with confident obsidian Blackness. And Barboza gets even closer to Grace Jones and Roberta Flack, pushing up close to Jones and capturing her strength and intensity, and pulling Flack to one side, her closed eyes attesting to her communion with the creative process.

While this show quickly skips across a number of bodies of work, it does provide a satisfying introductory sampler of Barboza’s range as a photographer, from Civil Rights era imagery seen with earnest dignity and humanism to more allusive and personal impressions of Black life in America. To my eye, the images most obviously driven by his experimental side will ultimately be judged as his strongest and most original work, particularly those pictures that push into challenging realms of expressive visual eloquence. It’s the implied anguish of a reaching hand or the introspection of closed eyes covered by shadows that touches a nerve, leaving behind the jangling echo of personal truth.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $7000 and $25000. Barboza’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): A total of 6 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the basement gallery space and on the second floor. ... Read on.

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