Rahim Fortune, Hardtack

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Loose Joints (here). Clothbound debossed hardcover, 238 x 287 mm, 144 pages, with 72 tritone reproductions. Includes an essay by Imani Perry. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: After many decades of knowing inaction and marginalization, the contemporary art world (in its many forms and guises) is finally trying to catch up for lost time by featuring a wider range of Black voices and telling a wider range Black stories. This increased interest is clearly long overdue, but it also creates an unexpectedly pressure-filled situation for today’s young Black artists, many of whom are still very much figuring out their own artistic paths. Unfortunately, this right-now demand seems to encourage ever quicker right-now responses from these artists (in some cases in the form of flashy exaggeration or look-at-me sensationalism), instead of the patience, restraint, and sensitivity required to stay true to the longer term process of developing a durably unique artistic voice.

From afar, Rahim Fortune seems to have smartly resisted the seductive lures of these larger art world swings. Over the past handful of years, he has quietly stuck with his chosen subject – the rhythms of Black life in Texas and Oklahoma, and in other adjacent regions in the South, from the Mississippi Delta all the way to Florida – and produced a series of modest projects and photobooks, ranging from self-published efforts (like Fantasy, from 2020, reviewed here) to his first substantial monograph I can’t stand to see you cry (from 2021, reviewed here). His recent photobook Hardtack represents a clear next step in his artistic maturation, offering ample evidence of the continued refinement of his photographic eye and of deepening photographic engagement with the people he encounters along the way.

Fortune has taken what we might call an old school path, at least in terms of his early photographic approach and style. Working in richly subtle black-and-white, he has actively embraced many of the long standing documentary traditions of the medium, and then carefully applied them to the specific overlooked world he is interested in documenting. Of course, many documentary photographers have been outsiders to their subject matter, often leading to arms length, aloof, and sometimes critical styles of picture making. But Fortune is generally an insider to his chosen visual story (at least in some places and with some people), and he has, in an understated manner, grafted a compassionate sense of his own personal values and history to that underlying documentary framework. It’s an approach not unlike those developed by Dawoud Bey and LaToya Ruby Frazier, where personal engagement with community and history informs and enhances the picture making, even in unfamiliar situations or with relative strangers.

In creating his aggregate picture of the broad idea of Black Texas (regardless of its exact borders), Fortune leans heavily on portraiture, which gives the entire project a sense of closeness and intimacy. Make no mistake, Fortune is a talented portraitist, and as he gains confidence with these kinds of photographic encounters, he is allowing himself to further drift from eyes-locked-in central framing to subtler and more indirect compositional styles and poses that allow for different kinds of connections and emotions. A gently bent arm (perhaps in weariness or anxiety), a confident turn backward while smoking, several looks downward, a soft moment in deep shadow, a resigned grimace while turning forward, a glassy eyed stare holding a newborn, and a look into the distance from the porch – each offers a quiet entry point into a personal story, as do several portraits featuring the earned time of women’s hands (folded in a lap, spread on a handmade quilt, or resting on a cane at church).

A quick flip through the index at the back of the photobook reveals that some of Fortune’s portrait subjects are family and friends – grandmothers, uncles, cousins, and the like – but others are unidentified men and women, and in the context of the page to page flow of Hardtack, we can’t really tell the difference. There is genius to be found in this communal flattening, where each person Fortune puts in front of his camera is given the same grace and comfort. Other standout portraits include a cowboy praying (holding his hat over his heart), a young boy in a tank top looking at us with a wary swagger (while his younger brother spies something else to the side), a mother with her two daughters, a young woman in a dress interrupted by an elbow intruding from the right side of the frame, a young woman in the passenger seat of a car, and a man in a white cowboy hat with a stare full of complex emotional layers.

Fortune has come to Black Texas to document stories, and his portraits consistently deliver on that promise. In several cases, he steps back from a straightforward portrait to document the larger context of a ritual or event that is meaningful to the community (many of them at coming-of-age milestones). He gets inside churches, meets Freemasons, attends weddings and rodeos, and documents the coronations of queens and Miss Juneteenth. In each case, he patiently observes the costumes and behaviors that give these cultural traditions their resonance, from the spurs and the satin sashes to the bowed heads and the booted feet resting on metal corrals.

When Fortune turns his attention to the surrounding landscapes and some of the buildings to be found nearby, of course his documentary eye becomes slightly more detached, but a close look at his choices reveals subtle undercurrents of embedded history and memory. Many of Fortune’s landscapes allude to these invisible narratives, and to the leaving behind of legacies, documenting the rubble pile of demolished school, the overgrown powerlines, an abandoned gas pump, the wildflowers twisted around a barbed wire fence, a broken tree, the brackish water and hanging moss of the Delta, and the dark reflections in farm field puddles. His studies of buildings reinforce these same stubbornly haunted themes, with boarded up churches, fenced off old houses, once popular BBQ joints, empty chairs on the porch, and frozen lamps pulling us back to the past, with charred footprints, gravesites, a few slave cabins, and a view underneath a highway overpass in the Greenwood section of Tulsa digging deeper into those long-enduring wounds.

Hardtack’s design and construction decisions have been made with understated confidence, deliberately allowing the photographs to stand on their own with a minimum of extraneous fluff. The cover is simple textured linen, with the title on the front and the artist’s name on the back. Inside, the photographs are sequenced into one continuous intermingled flow, mixing the portraits, landscapes, and other images together. The images are laid out with ample white space, one or two vertical images to a spread, with horizontal images either reduced to fit on one side of a spread or allowed to drift across the gutter. The only attention grabbing design element is found on the list of plates, where the titles wave back and forth like the field grasses in the photograph that begins the book. Seen as a unit, it’s a photobook design that feels poised and thoughtful, without drawing attention to itself unnecessarily.

Part of what makes Hardtack so memorable is the measured sincerity of its vision. These photographs feel present and authentic, aware of the past (both historically and photographically) but sensitive to the current moment. And even amid the plentiful evidence of past traumas to be found in its pages, there is a tough resiliency to these pictures that will continue to engage us, long after this photobook has found its place on a shelf. Simply put, Hardtack is an accomplished and impressive step forward for a young photographer undeniably on the rise; if you’ve missed Fortune’s work previously, it’s time to start paying attention.

Collector’s POV: Rahim Fortune is represented by Sasha Wolf Projects (here) and Claxton Projects (here). His 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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