D’Angelo Lovell Williams, Contact High

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by MACK Books (here). Embossed hardcover with tipped-in image (23 x 27.8 cm), 104 pages, with 93 photographs. Includes poems by the artist and an essay by Tiona Nekkia McClodden. Design by Morgan Crowcroft-Brown. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The intimate and often surreal photographs by the Mississippi-born, New York-based artist D’Angelo Lovell Williams fearlessly reframe narratives of Black and queer intimacy. An emerging artist just a few years out of graduate school, Williams reflects on the relative absence of representation of gay men of color. He says, “The history of art has always been, dangerously, white, straight, and male. My images are not only about my black and gay experience from my perspective, they are about desire and the framing of black gay men.” Williams’s work is an expansive exploration of the self and the bonding of relationships, and his meticulously staged portraits often include family members, close friends, and lovers. 

Williams recently released his debut monograph titled Contact High. The photographs were made over the past five years across several states, with the earliest picture included going back to his time in graduate school. Williams has had four solo exhibitions in just the last several years (two reviewed here and here), and while a good number of the images that were in those shows appear in the book, the photobook format offers a very different experience of the work, allowing more intimate time with the images; the artist’s poems also appear in the book, bringing in an additional dimension of personal reflection. The title reflects the importance of touch, and throughout the book, the photographs show people touching and embracing, or document intimate gestures that evoke closeness and connection. The complexities and nuances of touch are clearly a key element in Williams’s work.

Contact High has an embossed hardcover with a tipped-in image placed off center depicting the artist looking straight at the viewer as he holds a gun deep into his mouth. This photograph, while certainly provocative, offers an introduction to the parade of unspoken moments that will follow in the book’s visual narrative. Overall the visual flow consists of photographs of various sizes with generous white space around them. Contact High includes an essay by Tiona Nekkia McClodden, an artist and filmmaker, who calls Williams’s work “black mundane surrealism”, a surprisingly apt turn of phrase. A list of captions appears at the very end, closing the book. 

Williams turns to portraiture and striking performative collaborations to examine themes related to sexuality, love, race, and ancestry. His images, visceral and intimate, are packed with deep meanings. And while Williams appears in many of the photographs, the work is not really about him; rather, he is using his own body as a tool to talk about overlooked Black queer experiences more widely.

The book opens with a relatively small and intimate image, a portrait of the artist as he lays down on a purple fabric looking straight into the camera, his hand gently touching his face. This understated image captures undercurrents of both vulnerability and control. A couple of pages later, in an image placed across the spread and titled “Playing with Gravity”, Williams takes a bridge pose on a white mattress with a simple light green wall behind him, as he again looks at the camera. The photograph is turned upside down, making this already demanding posture look even more impossible. Other images depict various scenes: sexually charged poses with other men, masturbation in a bathroom mirror, two figures merged into a pregnant figure, the residue of blood on underwear, a Black man in a body of water. Hands often extend from outside of the frame, holding and touching, and as the visual flow unfolds, there is a delicate balance of discomfort and beauty, with Williams’s firm and penetrating stare a constant presence.

One of the most remarkable but quieter images is titled “Fleurish”. Here, the artist appears seated on a folded quilt atop a wooden cabinet against a dark turquoise wall. A vase between his legs covers his genitals while the long blooming stems frame his face. Two pots with dead plants are on the floor.

Williams’s images often combine closeness and distance in one shot. In one picture, the artist and his friend appear nude outside, tightly holding each other’s hands while leaning away, making the shape of a triangle. And in another image, Williams lays down on the carpet while another man’s legs stand on his back, capturing intimate skin to skin touch. In a small photograph titled “The Lovers”, Williams shows two Black men gently kissing through the veils of black durags, referencing René Magritte’s painting of the same title of a white heterosexual couple kissing; Williams smartly re-envisions the composition, commenting on the taboo of Black male love. 

The book also includes a number of photographs with family members, touching on the themes of ancestors. In one photograph, Williams and his father, both topless, arm wrestle in the backyard, the tension reflecting the father’s unease with his son’s queerness. In a photograph with his mother, titled “Until We Separate (Mom)”, he lays on his mother’s lap, while she cradles his head, and a string of gum stretches between their lips, as both look straight into the camera. And in “Was Blind, But Now I See (Granny)”, the artist’s grandmother holds her hand over his face. The images depict generational lineage, family intimacy, and tensions that have yet to dissipate. 

In his practice, Williams uses the Black queer body as a language, reframing the possibilities of the narrative. A number of other notable contemporary photographers have also been exploring and reclaiming the body, challenging long held stereotypes and offering alternatives to the dominant gaze. Two photographers working in this mode are John Edmonds, who creates complex and quietly beautiful portraits of Black men, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya, who uses almost puzzle-like compositions in his photographic explorations of queer presence. Williams’s career to date survey in photobook form is an excellent contribution to this ongoing conversation.

As a photobook object, Contact High is an elegant and straightforward publication. The images feel fresh and alive, filled with vulnerability, elegance, confidence, and fierce gazes, all in celebration of individual human beauty and diversity. Seen as one evolving artistic point of view, Williams’s work feels particularly directed and intentional, a remarkably consistent effort to redirect the representation of the Black queer community. Williams is still at an early stage of his career, so it will be exciting to see what he does next. 

Collector’s POV: D’Angelo Lovell Williams is represented by Higher Pictures Generation in New York (here). His work has not yet consistently found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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