Barkley L. Hendricks, photography

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Skira (here). Hardcover, 17 x 24 cm, 96 pages, with 66 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by Anna Arabindan-Kesson, a bibliography, and an exhibition history. Design by Marcello Francone. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Given the many complexities, time requirements, and process constraints of oil painting, it isn’t surprising that most painters use various kinds of sketchbooks to capture and refine their ideas before translating them into paint. And while we can rightfully assume that many are drawing in their sketchbooks, it has become increasingly true that contemporary painters are using photography as a mode of sketching.

The list of well known painters who have also experimented with or consistently used photography is impressively long: Sheeler, Warhol, Rauschenberg, Ruscha, Hockney, Twombly, Salle, Scully, Richter, and countless others. Some have used photography simply as an intermediate idea-capture or visual note taking medium, but many others have made photographic artworks that have ultimately stood on their own, even if they were originally conceived as source material for paintings.

The full-length painted portraits Barkley Hendricks has created of Black men and women (including himself) have long stood out for their attentiveness to the subtle details of style, pose, and gesture, so perhaps it isn’t entirely unexpected to discover that the he has been using a camera as part of his artistic process since his MFA days at Yale. Hendricks took classes with Walker Evans while in school there, and emerged with lessons not only in the technical aspects of the medium, but also in its uses on the street, where the rhythms of everyday life could be carefully observed and arranged.

This slim volume gathers together Hendricks’s work in photography for the first time, as part of a multi-volume set of books covering the wider arc of his artistic career. And while there are several satisfyingly match-able examples of photographs that later led to some of Hendricks’s most notable paintings, as seen here, his interest in photography was clearly much broader than just intermediate snapshots.

Many of Hendricks’s best photographs are intense studies of the way people stand. He uses the camera to look closely at the shift of weight, the way the hand on a hip turns a figure, the effect of leaning back or putting a hand in a pocket, or the balance of one figure touching another. He uses the same perceptiveness in building a taxonomy of the nuances of how a person holds or turns his or her head, when looking directly into the camera, sideways, with a slouch of indifference, or at someone else.

In some pictures, Hendricks captures full length individual styles and personalities, enlivened by the way a boombox is held, a golden Nefertiti necklace is worn, an open mouth arms extended smile creates warmth, or a straight backed pose exudes regal strength. Other images isolate details of bodies. He seems to have been particularly enamored with women’s feet, as seen with a seductive turn behind a desk, a purposeful stride in yellow carrying a baby’s car seat, a jaunty pose in red shoes and stockings, and a momentarily disorienting three footed image of a woman with one shoe off. He similarly takes notice of the curves of tight short shorts, the bright patterns of skirts and dresses, the ripples of white tank tops (as worn by young men), the positions of women as they sleep (in bus stations and on buses), and the ways men wear hats, from gently pushed back to pulled down over their eyes. Every picture feels like a focused study of human detail, from how an outfit hangs on a body to how a pose, a gesture, or an expression can be a performance, providing the raw material for later reuse and reinterpretation in paint.

While Hendricks can’t really be called a street photographer, there are certainly elements of the serendipity and compositional coincidence of street photography to be found in many of his images taken out in the world. He sees the wide empty space around a dog sitting patiently on the sidewalk, the delicate shadow cast by a bushy urban tree, the practical oddity of a man resting on the steps after transporting a dirty bathtub in a shopping cart, and the visual echo between the patterned dresses of fruit sellers and their merchandise. Many other images subtly turn toward the injustices of Black life in America, seeing uneasy undercurrents hiding in plain sight. Confederate flags adorn yard sale signs and junked car bumpers, a Black face offers a smiling welcome on an aging Kentucky Fried Chicken billboard out in the country, and young black girls in dresses alternately wash floors and carry fallen Mickey Mouse balloons. Hendricks clearly has the eye necessary for incisive street photography, but the few examples here seem to imply it hasn’t been enough of an artistic priority for him to build up a deeper body of work.

The same might be said of Hendricks’s photographs of television screens from the late 1980s and early 1990s – they offer the beginning of an investigation of the motifs of media, the rise of celebrity culture, and the representations of race on TV, but the project feels unfinished, or at least never quite expanded into something richer and more powerful. Ronald Reagan, Anita Hill, and Charles Manson all appear, as do O.J. Simpson at his trial and Sammy Davis Jr. on I Dream of Jeannie. These faces are then interspersed with images of a man in blackface and several pairs of high heeled shoes. What all of this might have become is left tantalizingly open-ended.

Part of the success of this small book is that it doesn’t try to do too much. It’s a tightly edited sampler of Hendricks’s photographs, just large enough to prove that he has talent with a camera and has actually leveraged photography in different kinds of art making. Whether there are more images like these or whether he shows these works on their own at some point is less important than introducing the idea that Hendricks has thoughtfully and consistently employed photography during his successful career as a painter. That simple fact recalibrates what we know about his process and his eye, creating an intriguing bridge between his attentive approaches to looking.

Collector’s POV: Barkley L. Hendricks is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery in New York (here). His photographs have little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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