The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion @Aperture

JTF (just the facts): A group show consisting of black-and-white and color photographs and videos from 15 main photographers (each represented by multiple images/works) and 24 additional photographers (each represented by one image), variously framed and matted, and hung against white, light blue, and pink walls in the main gallery space. The show was organized by Antwaun Sargent. (Installation shots below.)

The following photographers are included in the main body of the show, with the number of works on view and dates as background (some shown in a darkened video room or in an orange vitrine):

  • Campbell Addy: 6 archival pigment prints, 2016-2019, 1 video, 0:55, 2017, 3 magazine spreads (in vitrine)
  • Arielle Bobb-Willis: 5 archival pigment prints, 2017-2018
  • Micaiah Carter: 7 archival pigment prints, 2017-2018, 1 video, 1:49, 2017, 4 magazine spreads (in vitrine)
  • Awol Erizku: 1 set of 9 archival pigment prints, 2013, 1 archival pigment print, 2017, 3 magazine spreads (in vitrine)
  • Nadine Ijewere: 8 archival pigment prints, 2017-2019, 1 video, 0:43, 2017, 2 magazine spreads (in vitrine)
  • Quil Lemons: 6 archival pigment prints, 2017-2018, 1 video, 0:26, 2018, 1 magazine spread (in vitrine)
  • Namsa Leuba: 5 archival pigment prints, 2014, 2015, 2017
  • Renell Medrano: 9 archival pigment prints, 2017-2019, 1 video, 5:14, 2019, 3 magazine spreads (in vitrine)
  • Tyler Mitchell: 4 archival pigment prints, 2018-2019, 3 videos, 0:48, 2017, 2:03, 2017, 3:21, 2018, 6 magazine spreads (in vitrine)
  • Jamal Nxedlana: 4 archival pigment prints, 2017-2019: 1 video, 4:14, 2019, 1 magazine spread (in vitrine)
  • Daniel Obasi: 5 archival pigment prints, 2019, 1 video, 5:23, 2018, 1 magazine spread (in vitrine)
  • Ruth Ossai: 7 archival pigment prints, 2017-2018, 1 video, 6:43, 2017, 1 magazine spread (in vitrine)
  • Adrienne Raquel: 4 archival pigment prints, 2017-2019, 2 magazine spreads (in vitrine)
  • Dana Scruggs: 4 archival pigment prints, 2014, 2018, 2019, 4 magazine spreads (in vitrine)
  • Stephen Tayo: 4 archival pigment prints, 2018-2019

Edition sizes for the prints are variously 3, 5, 6, and 7.

A second vitrine (painted blue) contains books, magazines, and other historical ephemera: Howard Morehead (1), David Jackson & Bertrand Miles (1), Kwame Brathwaite (1), Gordon Parks (2), Leroy Patton (1), Moneta Sleet Jr. (1), The Black Photographers Annual 1973 (1), Samuel Fosso (1), Liz Johnson Artur (1), Jamel Shabazz (2), Malick Sidibé (1), Mickalene Thomas (1), Carrie Mae Weems (1)

A pink wall behind the reception desk includes single images by the following:

  • Travys Owen, 2019
  • Daveed Baptiste, 2018
  • Faith Couch, 2017
  • Adama Jalloh, 2019
  • Cary Fagan, 2017
  • Tyra Mitchell, 2017
  • Manny Jefferson, 2018
  • Isaac West, 2019
  • Lucie Rox, 2018
  • Texas Isaiah, 2018
  • Ronan McKenzie, 2019
  • Joshua Woods, 2019
  • Erica Génécé, 2018
  • Denzel Golatt, 2018
  • Lawrence Agyei, 2018
  • Travis Gumbs, 2016
  • Seye Isikalu, 2018
  • Joshua Kissi, 2019
  • Delphine Diallo, 2011
  • Makeda Sandford, 2018
  • Cecile Smetana Baudier, 2019
  • Yannis Davy Guibinga 2018
  • Myles Loftin, 2018
  • Justin French, 2017

A monograph/catalog of this exhibit was recently published by Aperture (here). Hardcover, 304 pages,with 250 color images. Includes an essay by Antwaun Sargent, individual photographer backgrounds, and various artist interviews/conversations with Sargent, Deborah Willis, Shaniqwa Jarvis, and Mickalene Thomas. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: The New Black Vanguard is the kind of milestone group show that has the power to fundamentally change the way people think. Few photography group shows in any given year even come close to this kind of impact, but this one is already creating visible ripples around itself.

At its core, The New Black Vanguard is organized around a relatively straightforward thesis – namely that we have reached at an inflection point in the world of fashion photography, where black photographers (from various nations and backgrounds) who were as a group previously underappreciated, overlooked, and overtly marginalized are now coming to the forefront, essentially for the first time. The show aims to introduce us to this growing corps of talented black fashion photographers and to the innovative styles and approaches they are bringing to the table. But embedded in this compendium of new voices is a whole host of complex social issues and histories related to fashion that deserve more complete airing and active reconsideration, adding a layer of weight to what would normally be a simple fresh faces sampler.

The historical backdrop to The New Black Vanguard, to put it bluntly, is remarkably white. The canon of fashion photography is dominated by white photographers, most of whom also happened to be men: Avedon, Penn, Beaton, Horst, Steichen, Parkinson, de Meyer, Hoyningen-Huene, Munkacsi, Ritts, Lindbergh, Demarchelier, Newton, Bourdin, Klein, Meisel, Testino, LaChapelle, Teller, the list goes on and on, with Bassman, von Unwerth, Moon, Turbeville, and Leibovitz finally coming along to upend the patriarchy and add a much needed female perspective. The historical list of black fashion photographers is decidedly shorter: James VanDerZee, the Malian studio photographers Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, Gordon Parks, James Barnor, Kwame Brathwaite, and handful of others (many are represented for context in a light blue historically-focused vitrine in this show), and while they all made indelible fashion images, few operated inside the fashion mainstream and none was ever given the assignment to shoot the cover for a publication like Vogue.

So when Tyler Mitchell (whose work is included here) was commissioned to shoot Beyoncé for the cover of American Vogue last year, it was a long delayed thunderclap – he was the first black photographer ever to be hired for that influential and prestigious cover slot. Nadine Ijewere (also included in this show) broke a similar barrier at British Vogue in 2018, becoming the first black female photographer to shoot that cover. Other long standing blockages are also continuing to be broken – just this month, the famous black model Naomi Campbell was photographed by a black photographer (Campbell Addy, yes, included here too) for a mainstream publication, something that had previously never happened in her astonishing 35-year career in fashion.

What curator Antwaun Sargent forcefully argues in his introductory catalog essay is that the pervasive historical whiteness of fashion photographers (and this whiteness extended to the art directors, editors, stylists, and other professionals involved in crafting both the looks and the magazines that housed them) has had wide ranging and long lasting social repercussions. Fashion is so many things and has so many influences – it is inherently aspirational, it defines the parameters of beauty, it creates modes of individuality, it influences tastes and styles, it affirms certain body types, hair styles, and facial features, it celebrates certain designers, and it frames boundaries of sexuality and masculinity/femininity. So if you step back and think for a minute that all of these things have been oriented by a dominant white perspective, and that whiteness has been routinely privileged in basically all facets of this industry, it becomes quite clear that the playing field was, and largely still is, tilted.

One critical nuance to this line of thinking is that while the master photographers we honor in art history books were defining what white beauty and individuality were, their images were also defining (and therefore limiting) black beauty and individual expression, as seen from a white perspective. This was particularly true in the case of black skin, black natural hairstyles, and black fashions themselves – only a very narrow band of blackness was highlighted, thereby marginalizing and alienating a wider, and more diverse definition of what it could mean to be black. If there is one overarching take-home message to the works in this group show, it’s that, regardless of what we have seen from the fashion industry, there isn’t just one monolithic blackness, but instead an expansive range of blackness that includes all different kinds of looks, modes, identities, and definitions of beauty.

A second notable conclusion from this analysis is that with the traditional access points and mainstream publications largely closed to these younger black fashion photographers, they had no choice but create their own distribution for their imagery. This is where the Internet comes into this story, with social media (particularly Instagram, but artist websites, blogs, digital magazines, and other guerrilla marketing options as well) offering an immediate way to get imagery out into the world without going through the roadblocks defending the usual channels. An orange-painted vitrine on view here offers a compelling sampler of magazines that have hosted pictures by these black photographers, many of them self published or niche offerings, but scrappily out there influencing people nonetheless. And as hard-earned word-of-mouth success has blossomed for many of these photographers, and the larger cultural environment has shifted toward more inclusiveness, the doors back to the mainstream have started to slowly open.

The New Black Vanguard group show, and accompanying catalog, centers on 15 individual photographers, each of whom has been given a short introduction and the space for a handful of representative images from recent work. Fashion photography is an unheralded team sport, where great clothes, great models, great styling, and in some instances great locations come together to provide the photographer with the raw material for a durably memorable image, and some of the images on view are so dominated by the awesomeness of these details that the vision of the photographer is somewhat minimized. That said, most of these photographers are paying it forward in terms of supporting black designers, black models, and black stylists, so the team is winning, even when the photographer is simply framing the creative work of others.

For those following art photography, Awol Erizku will be the most recognizable name in this selection of artists, and Erizku’s contributions here lean toward the conceptual more than any of the others, his images mixing color blocks with sculptural Egyptian trinkets and creating a gridded typology out of men’s fade haircuts. The aesthetic employed by Arielle Bobb-Willis may also feel somewhat familiar, as she employs poses that create deliberate obfuscation and clever illusion, via hidden faces, covered limbs, and bold color contrasts.

Two Nigerian photographers, Ruth Ossai and Stephen Tayo, have updated and reimagined classic African portraiture styles. Ossai opts for the painted backdrops of the studio, where grassy meadows, space age galaxies, lilting soft-focus landscapes, and the Nollywood sign provide controlled settings for a fur collar and flared pants, a splashy red suit under an umbrella, giddyup leather cowboy looks, and plenty of bold patterns. Tayo instead heads for the streets, where bright colors and stripes are set against brick walls and improvised drapery and more traditional formal ensembles are seated in plastic chairs.

The selections for both Tyler Mitchell and Nadine Ijewere highlight their talents for making a compelling fashion picture by centering in on texture. Mitchell’s images make the most of wispy tulle, bright pink floral layering, satiny ribbons, and white wildflowers, while Ijewere brings feathery wings (worn upside down), an animal print suit (set against an explosion of blooming bougainvillea), the exuberant puffiness of an orange polka-dotted dress, and a messy tangle of red hair to the forefront. Both photographers use models of widely varying skin color, reinforcing a sense of pluralism and individuality, while Dana Scruggs moves to an endpoint, featuring models with the very darkest skin (far darker than is normally found in the pages of fashion magazines), often placing the women (and men) against extreme white backgrounds to enhance the sense of visual contrast.

Another common theme across nearly all of the photographers on view in The New Black Vanguard is an inherent comfort with androgyny, gender fluidity, a range of sexuality, and different expressions of masculinity and femininity. Quil Lemons’ series “Glitterboy” covers the faces of young black men with pink glitter, providing an elegant alternative to tough guy masculinity; the same is true of Micaiah Carter’s portrait of a young man in colorful plastic hair curlers (echoing the 1970s-era look of baseball pitcher Dock Ellis.) In a sense, Adrienne Raquel goes the other way in her stylized feminine portraits, reclaiming the cliches of sensuality (wet lips, red leather, soft pink lighting, high heels) with undeniable confidence and swagger.

Curator Antwaun Sargent has done an admirable job of not only identifying all of these up-and-coming black fashion photographers, but knitting them into what seems (from afar) to be the beginnings of a vibrant and cohesive community. Many of the now-famous black photographer artists of the previous generation (Carrie Mae Weems, Lyle Ashton Harris, Lorna Simpson, Dawoud Bey, and a few others) who built a primary layer of support network have now become mentors, teachers, and influencers to a much larger group, and Sargent’s energetic promotion of their successes in the fashion world has furthered the coalescing process. By pulling these photographers together, uniting them behind a catchy name, and telling their stories in talks, interviews, and social media posts, Sargent has successfully amplified their collective momentum, and done so far more effectively than a typical group show organizer.

While the are indeed individual photographer discoveries to be found in The New Black Vanguard, I think it’s larger importance lies in recalibrating our sense of what is possible, and now required, in fashion photography. The show makes a compelling case, both visually and intellectually, for the widespread infusion of new blood, the consistent quality of its imagery pre-emptively guaranteeing that what will emerge from such a process of retooling will be a fashion world that better accounts for the complexity and wonder of blackness. The energy and excitement that surrounds this show feels contagious, and that aspirational positivity is exactly what fashion is all about.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a broad-based group show, we will forgo our usual discussion of individual prices, gallery representation relationships, and secondary market histories. As is often the case at this venue, determining what is for sale isn’t easy; it appears that many if not all of the prints on view are actually available for sale, but the prices aren’t provided on the checklist at the desk. Interested collectors will need to follow up directly with the Aperture print sales group or with the artists directly via their websites (linked in the sidebar as available).

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Read more about: Adrienne Raquel, Arielle Bobb-Willis, Awol Erizku, Campbell Addy, Dana Scruggs, Daniel Obasi, Jamal Ndexlana, Micaiah Carter, Nadine Ijewere, Namsa Leuba, Quil Lemons, Renell Medrano, Ruth Ossai, Stephen Tayo, Tyler Mitchell, Aperture Gallery, Aperture

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