Macaiah Carter, American Black Beauty Vol. 1 @SN37

JTF (just the facts): A total of 11 large scale color photographs, generally unframed, and hung against white and painted walls in the two-story gallery space. While the images are displayed as exhibition prints of various sizes, all of the available works are archival digital c-prints, made in 2021. Physical sizes for these prints are roughly 16×20 inches (or the reverse), and all of the prints are available in editions of 20. The show also includes a clustered installation of family photos, and two screens showing family home movies. (Installation and exterior shots below.)

Comments/Context: Back in 2019, in what now seems like a distant pre-pandemic past, an important group show (and photobook) curated by Antwaun Sargent called The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion (reviewed here) re-calibrated our understanding of the landscape of contemporary Black photographers working in the fashion industry and introduced many talented artists to a wider audience. It seemed obvious at the time that the show wasn’t an end but a powerful beginning, and that a number (if not all) of those included would ultimately be further recognized with their own solo shows and photobooks, taking the first level introductions of the group show format several layers deeper.

In the past several years, the outward art world ripples from The New Black Vanguard have been quite visible in New York, with many of the artists capitalizing on the momentum boost. Tyler Mitchell had a solo exhibit at the ICP (reviewed here), a pair of gallery shows at Jack Shainman (reviewed here), and another show at the Gordon Parks Foundation as part of a residency there. Awol Erizku had a solo show at the FLAG Art Foundation (reviewed here). Namsa Leuba had a retrospective catalog published, to accompany a museum exhibit (reviewed here). Adrienne Raquel had a solo exhibit at Fotografiska. And Arielle Bobb-Willis was included in group shows at both the ICP and Hannah Traore. And that almost certainly isn’t all of the downstream activity that has been happening.

Add to this growing list the name of Macaiah Carter, whose solo show at SN37 (the letters of “lens” upside down) provides a bridge between his fashion efforts and his personal work, offering aesthetic links between the two. His exhibit actually begins outside in the street, where bold orange graphics and gently observant images of children fill the nearby vacant windows, setting the stage for what will be found inside. The gallery space itself is an airy, open-centered two-story affair, and Carter’s work fills both levels, intermingling the commissions and the more personal pictures.

Like Mitchell, Carter seems intent on creating a new aesthetic for Black positivity, where familial love and tenderness are the dominant moods. The care and protectiveness of Black fathers is featured in several images, one with a father carrying two party-dress-wearing daughters in his overfilled arms, and another with a father carrying his son on his shoulders, armed with a bit more wariness in his eyes. These are fathers that are present, active, and involved in their children’s lives, and Carter’s pictures celebrate the subtleties of these connections. Carter’s own father recently passed away, and the show includes a selection of family photos and home movies as a tribute – they memorialize both the father’s military service and his full presence in the family, with plenty of pictures of father and son connected by broad smiles and loving, supportive touch.

When Carter turns his camera toward the innocence of childhood, his approach is thoughtfully complex rather than cloying, and the theme of seeing runs through many of his pictures. A young girl has her portrait taken with her eyes closed, either in calm or quiet defiance. A boy covers his eyes with the back of his hand, less in aggrieved protection than in weariness. Another young girl sits on the sidewalk and examines the while tulle of her dress with intent wonder. And a somewhat older girl in a dance troupe looks over her winged shoulder with proud straight-backed confidence, as if to silence someone off camera. Even the young children in the storefront windows outside the show momentarily catch us with their intensity, a distracted face suddenly turning to face us with unnervingly precise attention. Seen together, Carter’s images treat his young subjects with full respect, and they respond with poise that feels beyond their years.

Upstairs, a small selection of Carter’s fashion images provides some wider context for his aesthetic decisions. The strongest of these is a snappy symphony in light brown, featuring a confident Black model in a puffy fur coat and leather pants seemingly lost in her thoughts – it’s a seductively gorgeous picture, brimming with enveloping warmth. Another work has a tender Black Zorro vibe, with a jaunty black hat, a half shirt, and a silver earring providing a fluid sense of masculinity. These kinds of photographs point to an evolving view of Black fashion imagery, that better allows for intimacy and vulnerability, as well as an overdue mastery of lighting Black skin.

By turning his first gallery show back toward the rhythms of family, Carter is sending us a message about his priorities. While his career in fashion photography will likely continue to accelerate (based on the promise and sophistication of the few fashion images on view here), his trajectory as an artist may ultimately hybridize his commercial learnings with a more potent dose of personal truth, softening the heady flash of fashion with a more unguarded look inward.

Collector’s POV: The prints available in this show are priced at $800 each. Carter’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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