John Edmonds, Higher

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Capricious (here). Hardcover, 88 numbered pages, with 70 color and black and white reproductions. Includes 16 additional pages (on thinner paper stock) of thumbnail images by project (with short project introductions by the artist), as well as essays by Dr. Aaron Rosen and Durga Chew-Bose and an extended conversation between the artist and Mickalene Thomas. Design by Studio Lin. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The shining gold cloth that wraps the cover of John Edmonds’ first photobook Higher is, in more ways than one, a boldly inspired choice. With halftone images of anonymous figures in a hoodie and a du-rag set against this regal gilt backdrop, the front cover resembles a religious altarpiece of sorts, albeit with saintly figures many wouldn’t normally associate with such spiritual concerns. With just a glance, Edmonds has set up the primary interplay that informs his photography – the dissonance between the expectations we have for what young black men look like and the deliberate grace with which Edmonds’ pictures upend those very same representations.

For an emerging artist just a few years out of graduate school, we might normally expect a first photobook to be a single subject or single project affair, perhaps with some design flair to draw attention to itself. But Higher is neither one dimensional nor flashy; it gathers together no less than four accomplished bodies of work made over half a dozen years and delivers them with understatement and humility. The whole package is so pared-back and introspective that some might miss the obvious talent that lies inside – this is a photobook that is resolutely and centrally about the photographs it contains, with construction choices made to keep the design in the background.

Edmonds’ series Immaculate began before he went to Yale for his MFA, and offers rich evidence of the roots of his aesthetic thinking. The project consists of portraits of young black men he met on public transportation in Washington, D.C., and yet these images of strangers are filled with the kind of vulnerability and trust normally reserved for intimate friends and family. The men are largely posed with their shirts off or nude, using natural light to create a range of highlights and shadows. Unlike Kehinde Wiley’s paintings, which place black men in the historical poses of saints, kings, and religious figures, Edmonds’ photographs seem to search for poses with less mannered structure but still resonant with self-possession. What sets these pictures apart is their sense of presence, a kind of in-the-moment attention that seems to encourage Edmonds’ sitters to open up. While a few look right into the camera, engaging us with immediacy, many more are lost in thought or choose an indirect approach, their gestures and expressions (even sleeping) creating a softer reality. Even proud chest tattoos like spread wings or the Superman shield feel muted by the truth of being seen with such care and honesty. Between Edmonds’ smart use of shadow and gentle color and his comfortable arrangement of empty space, he has consistently found beauty where few have looked, recalibrating our assumptions about what happens when black male bodies are seen with such openness and validation.

The Hoods series takes this same eye for precision and hones it down further. Using his own sweatshirts, jackets, and hoodies, Edmonds posed various sitters against blank walls with their backs to the camera. The result is a set of images that turn the human forms into studies of shape, texture, and drapery, obscuring the faces so that we can’t know who is inside those hoods. Edmonds apparently chose subjects of varying age, gender, and race, and this is where the images center their power – do we assume that these figures are young black men, just because they are wearing hoods pulled up? And if so, what does that tell us about our own biases and misconceptions? Carrie Mae Weems used a related device in her 2016 series All the Boys, but Edmonds pushes it further in terms of simplification, the bodies becoming sculptural and that much more universal.

Edmonds’ next project, the Du-Rags series, in effect combines the aesthetic learnings from these first two efforts. Various men, whom he met on the streets of Brooklyn, pose in the headpieces, many turned around so we can’t see their faces. Edmonds’ increasing mastery of photographic craft comes through in these pictures – the focus is intentionally placed not on the flowing folds of the du-rags in front, but further back in space, on the ears of the sitters. This drops the du-rags into soft blur, their natural shines and shimmers made all the more like those in religious paintings. Here again, we have strong cultural dissonance at work – du-rags have often been associated with gang members, rappers, and other swaggering youths. But in Edmonds’ hands, they have become akin to the shawl of the Madonna, the wearers bathed in a kind of spiritual purity that actively pushes against the broad stereotype. A few of the men turn back toward the camera or gather in small groups (one image is entitled “America, the Beautiful”), and their collective gentleness is calming not aggressive. As a whole, this project succeeds on many levels, from the conceptual upending of preconceived notions to the visual seductiveness of the textures and surfaces.

The most recent work in the book seems to use Man Ray’s iconic “Noire et Blanche” as a starting point. In the original 1926 image, Kiki of Montparnasse poses holding an African mask close to her face, the paleness of her own visage contrasting sharply with the darkness of the mask. While the tones are opposite, the styling is similar, her hair slicked down and her lips reduced to a small pucker, just like the mask. Edmonds clearly wants to re-envision this image, and his works for the Tribe series variously pose male and female models with African masks and get up close to hair in tight weaves or braids. When seen as a series, the pictures feel like a reclamation, a firm statement that the comparison that is of interest isn’t the white woman and the savage, but black people and the symbols of their heritage. Edmonds’ draws obvious visual connections between the faces and the masks, and those relationships are infused with strength and continuity rather than otherness.

While as a photobook object, Higher doesn’t have all the design sophistication that it might have had, its elemental style matches its content with high fidelity. Based on the photographs alone, this is clearly one of the best photobooks of the year, and for those who haven’t seen Edmonds’ work before, it is an impressively ambitious debut. Most importantly, it’s truly exciting to watch as a younger photographer slowly finds his own path forward, the momentum generated not from hype and trend following, but from hard earned dedication to thoughtfully pushing the medium to reflect his own voice.

Collector’s POV: John Edmonds does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time, nor does he have an active artist website. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up with the book publisher Capricious, via the website linked in the sidebar.

Read more about: John Edmonds, Capricious

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