Clifford Prince King, Hush-a-bye Dreams @Gordon Robichaux

JTF (just the facts): A total of 9 color photographs, framed in dark brown wood and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the two room gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 2017 and 2022. Physical sizes are either 24×16, 30×20, or 48×32 inches, and all of the works are available in editions of 5. (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work was published in 2022 by TIS Books (here). Foil-stamped hardcover with tipped in image, 24 x 28 cm, 92 pages, with 45 color reproductions. (Cover shot below.)

Comment/Context: As a thought experiment, let’s first begin with a question: what is it about the look and feel of a photograph that makes it “comfortable”? Whether the subject is a person, a place, or even a thing, somehow we feel at ease when seeing it; words and phrases like safe, calm, relaxed, happy, welcomed, respected, accepted for who we are, and maybe even loved or at least physically warm jump to mind. But how does a photographer convey this sense of comfort visually? Through mood, atmosphere, gesture, color, and pose perhaps, but how exactly, without becoming dull and lifeless? What photographic choices does he or she intentionally make to generate this elusive feeling?

This line of thinking was bouncing around in my head as I walked through Clifford Prince King’s current show, his first gallery solo in New York. King’s photographs consistently hit a note of comfort that I haven’t felt in a long time. Initially, I felt tempted to slot his work in between the dream-like quality of some of Tyler Mitchell’s portraits and the charged intimacy felt in some of John Edmonds’ first projects, with a fainter link to some of Zanele Muholi’s quietly lush bedroom scenes and Paul Mpagi Sepyua’s studio setups, but then I stopped myself short. Such a mapping or categorization implies artistic trade offs and gradations, and I don’t think that’s where King is coming from. These images feel natively grown, not self-consciously adapted from somewhere else.

Given the number of queer Black male perspectives we’ve started to see of late in contemporary photography, it’s intriguing that King’s vantage point feels so softly graceful and almost pure in comparison. His setting is seemingly an anonymous form of Los Angeles, but that specific location doesn’t add much to the overall story he’s telling, except perhaps that the temperature is warm, making walking around shirtless or nude relatively unsurprising. Most of his scenes take place in sparsely furnished interiors, where the nuanced interactions of his subjects (perhaps friends or lovers) are the main draw. Desire is undoubtedly part of the equation here, but understated tenderness, companionship, vulnerability, and acceptance feel like the modes and moods that King is more interested in than simple jangling attraction; as I’ve said already, his pictures are consistently comfortable, in ways that pull us into their intimacies.

King’s images can be separated into two piles – those featuring couples or groups of men, and those where a single figure is given undivided attention. The images of couples generally search for the smaller moments of intimacy that accompany desire; yes, there is one kiss, but it’s seen from afar through a small window, like a fairy tale romance (reimagined as two men in durags). Other moments feel heavy with the easy aftermath of desire, the nudity of bodies seen with a matter-of-fact casualness and lack of self consciousness. King offers us a head resting on a shoulder behind a fogged pane of shower glass, two men patiently folding up a blanket near a loveseat, and a man smoking while being watched/photographed in a mirror. Each scene feels quietly tender and altogether unhurried, the moments elongated into something more like lazy moods.

“Safe Space” gathers three seated figures into a domestic scene, in a contemporary version of the classic triangular composition. Reading, hair braiding, and smoking take place on the edge of a bed, with various bent arms and legs (as well as draped hands with long fingernails) arranged into an interlocked moment of simple intimacy. This is the kind of picture we’ve seen countless time with young women as the subject; King’s image re-orients it with a sense of queer masculinity, the supportive attention of friends made natural and cosy.

King’s images of men on their own are quite a bit more contemplative and inward looking. While much has been made in the past few years of how white photographers have historically done a very poor job of lighting and seeing Black skin, it’s clear that King is indeed amply proficient in photographing these nuances. His broader color palette is warm and enveloping, with Black skin taking on burnished shines and sheens that accent the gradations of possible skin tone with a sense of tactile luxuriousness. Works like “Plymouth” and “Rabbit Hole” are made stronger by this smart treatment of naked skin, the poses and setups arranged to celebrate young Black men as vulnerable, introspective, and handsomely seductive. King then goes on to add just a few more props and surroundings, capturing a reserved reverie under a poster shouting for OPPORTUNITY and an earnest effort at ironing a shirt flanked by an image Jesse Owens launching himself from the starting blocks. These two pictures frame the experience of these men in terms of their potential for advancement and achievement, pushing back on stereotypes that have typically offered young Black men much less favorable prospects.

This small show has been smartly edited, narrowing down King’s work into something approaching a soothing tone poem. Seen as a group, his photographs come together to conjure up an atmosphere that pushes back on the whole notion that the queer Black male experience is something that requires explanation, justification, or defense of some kind. King’s pictures calmly and deliberately state that there is an essential comfort to be found in these relationships and rhythms of life, and that there are moments of authentic celebration and magnetism to be found within. Based on this small sample of consistently resonant images, King is clearly a young photographer worth tracking.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $4000, $7500, or $10000, based on size. King’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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