Carla Williams: Circa 1985 @Higher Pictures

JTF (just the facts): A total of 72 black-and-white and color photographs, installed unframed against brown craft paper, in the main gallery space and the office area. (Installation shots below.)

The following works are included in the show:

  • 47 gelatin silver prints, 1984-1985, 1985, sized roughly 5×3, 5×4, 6×4, 6×5, 6×6, 6×8, 7×6, 8×5, 8×6, 8×7, 9×7, 9×11, 10×8, 10×9, 11×6, 18×14, 18×15 inches
  • 4 gelatin silver prints mounted to museum board, 1984-1985, sized roughly 6×5, 10×15 inches
  • 6 gelatin silver prints, bleached, 1984-1985, 1985, sized 6×5, 9×7, 10×8, 11×14, 13×10, 14×11 inches
  • 1 gelatin silver print, bleached, from partially solarized negative, 1985, sized roughly 6×5 inches
  • 10 c-prints, 1984-1985, 1985, sized roughly 5×4, 9×7, 10×8, 10×12, 12×7, 12×8, 13×10 inches
  • 2 gelatin silver prints, flashed, 1984-1985, sized roughly 6×6, 7×6 inches
  • 1 gelatin silver print, solarized, 1984-1985, sized 10×8 inches
  • 1 gelatin silver print, direct positive, 1985, sized 8×10 inches

A broader monograph of Williams’s work, titled Tender, has recently been published by TBW Books (here). Soft cover with dust jacket, 8×10 inches, 160 pages, with 80 reproductions. Includes an original 4×6 chromogenic print. In an edition of 1000 copies.

Comments/Context: The early career work made by a photographer in his or her undergraduate days, or even in many cases made during a graduate program a few years later, is often overlooked and undervalued by academics and collectors alike. In this work, we typically watch as an artist learns and refines his or her craft, experiments with different techniques and assignments, and tries on styles and influences adapted from other photographers, all in the dogged search for his or her own unique artistic voice. What we hope to find in these early images (sometimes dismissively categorized as “juvenilia”) are the seeds of a coalescing point of view, and the beginnings of an artistic path forward.

Unless we consistently visit the small thesis shows put on by artistic departments at universities, we will largely miss seeing this work. A few New York galleries put on short running group shows gathering the work of recent BFA or MFA graduates from particular schools (like Yale, RISD, Pratt, and SVA) but with only an image or two by any one included artist on view, it’s often hard to make much of an assessment of their ideas or prospects. Unless they are gathered into a photobook (which is more and more popular at some programs), these thesis shows tend to fade into obscurity, that is until they are unearthed decades later and sequentially edited and placed at the beginning of retrospectives.

This show faithfully recreates Carla Williams’s Bachelor of Arts thesis show from Princeton in 1986, and it’s an undeniable knockout, easily one of the best shows of photography to be seen in this big city this entire year. Set against humble craft paper, and hung unframed in various sizes, the vintage photographs document a young Black woman’s efforts to actively wrestle with the medium of photography, and her potential place in it. Apparently Emmet Gowin called it the best thesis show he had seen in his thirty six years of teaching, and yet here we are, essentially meeting Williams for the first time, decades after she made these images. While she went on to get her MA and MFA from the University of New Mexico, and has spent years as an esteemed historian and writer (in 2002, she co-authored the groundbreaking The Black Female Body with Deborah Willis), this work stayed in the storage boxes until now, where it has emerged with a force and relevance she likely didn’t entirely expect or realize.

Like many young photographers searching for a subject that might have personal meaning, Williams turned the camera on herself, making a series of self portraits, both in black-and-white and to a lesser extent in color. What separates Williams’s project from the countless others who have set off down an obviously similar road can be traced back to two ideas: the depth and intensity of her study of the photographic past and the consistency of her commitment to and interest in photographic experimentation; very few early career self-portraiture projects are as historically aware and richly (and thoughtfully) exploratory as this one. As context, Francesca Woodman’s images made at RISD in the 1970s come to mind, but Williams’s pictures exhibit a different strain of feminine surrealism and a more probing interest in reprocessing her predecessors.

In many ways, Williams keeps the framework of her project modest. She is the only subject, and she largely poses without props (aside from the shutter release) in the rooms of her dorm or apartment, featuring a draped wall, a window or two, and her bed, both darkened and covered with soft light. She poses fully clothed, in everyday clothing, in her pajamas, a flannel robe, and a lacy camisole, and fully nude, and her emotions (as seen in her facial expressions and body language) run the gamut from contemplative, quiet, and understatedly playful to tired, crying, and even screaming. In this way, she keeps the fundamental structure of her project relatively simple, leaving plenty of room to explore how her persona can stretch and expand.

Part of what is fascinating about Williams’s images is how she is both clearly aware of her photography history and open to trying to find a place for herself within those aesthetics. A turn around her thesis exhibit evokes visual echoes of Man Ray, Steichen, Weston, Strand, Bellmer, and others, but without the intellectual simplicity of homage or derivative copying; instead she internalizes and reimagines those gazes and approaches, with a young Black woman now placed in the center, which of course shifts the visual dynamics (and moods) in unexpected ways. What stands out is the immediacy of her engagement with this canon; instead of rejecting or avoiding an artistic past that didn’t include her, she intellectually embraces, unpacks, and redefines it, making it her own in a way that few undergraduates ever achieve.

The breadth of experimentation and inventiveness that Williams displays in these photographs is undeniably impressive. She moves quickly from relatively straightforward light and shadow play to more nuanced arrangements, to which she then adds the drapery of sheets and various gauzy veilings, eventually pushing towards suffocation. Soon she evolves to multiple exposures and mirroring, as well as bleaching and solarization to further extend her compositions out of more normal tonal ranges and combinations. Several color works reduce her body to a seething red totem, and a few others add an eerie version of whiteface to the proceedings. As a kind of catalog of historical styles, Williams emphatically reclaims and reinterprets each and every one, with a degree of understated grace and humility that reaches beyond her young age at the time.

Several other works build off of the double exposure idea Williams employs in many of the works, transforming it into a layer of image projection which is then cast across her own body. These are among the most complex and innovative photographs in the show, adding shadowy patterning to nudes and creating doubled personas and identities that uneasily shift in and out of easy recognition. In many cases, there is a kind of masking effect, where Williams is covered by a mask of an alternate self, forcing the two into a surreal struggle for dominance, or at least coexistence. There is an inherent messiness to using projection as a technique, but Williams largely avoids this muddiness, offering us versions of herself that oscillate between extremes.

Between this gallery show and a recent monograph Tender published by TBW Books (which won the Aperture-Paris Photo First photobook prize), it seems likely that the “rediscovery” of Williams will now accelerate. Hopefully, this process will include a reslotting of Williams back in with other Black photographers who were busy working in the mid-1980s, including Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Lyle Ashton Harris, and others, as her investigations of Black identity and self likely resonate well with the investigations others were undertaking at the time. It is worth understanding Williams’s work in the context of that cultural moment rather than apart from it, as we can then think about it not only in our particular now, but in its original then.

This show has the feeling of a lightning strike, where the electricity seems to sizzle through the air of the gallery. Williams’s work is so very smart and aware, both of the history of the medium and its prominent flat spots, which leads to a layered dialogue between the artist and the canon which feels deliberate, methodical, and challenging. It boldly asks the canon to make room for young Black photographer and her persistent questions, grafting a richness of Black female identity onto aesthetics that largely left those concerns aside. In doing so, Williams doesn’t tear the canon down, as many would have her do, but instead expands the available possibilities with thoughtful personal risk taking.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $4000 and $8000 each. Williams’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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